Letters & Op-Eds 2002

Upholding a Culture of Life

There is a tragic irony in the institutional Catholic church’s role in the world community of health care
providers.While the institutional church is a major provider of health care around the world – especially to those living in impoverished communities – its policies contribute to serious health care problems, namely the spread of HIV/AIDS and maternal mortality.

In his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), Pope John Paul II identifies contraception as an “evil” that contributes to a “culture of death.” Hence, the institutional church’s ban on condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and unwanted pregnancy is understood by its advocates as promoting a “culture of life,” even though in one year 3 million people die from AIDS and 80 000 women die from unsafe abortion.

The institutional church’s positions on modern methods of contraception are not monolithic and the views presented by institutional church representatives are subject to different interpretations. In relation to positions held by the institutional church on reproductive rights and reproductive health, it should be noted that positions of the institutional church are a minority opinion. It is in the midst of such ironies and complexities that Catholics for a Free Church launched the Condoms4Life Campaign – the first-ever global campaign to end the institutional church’s ban on condoms. It invites the public to join the global campaign to end the ban at www.condoms4life.org. People who join the campaign are asked to contact local policy-makers and express their support for the availability of condoms.

For individuals who follow the Vatican’s policy and Catholic health care providers who are forced to deny condoms, the bishops’ ban is a disaster. Real people are dying from AIDS. Real women faced with unwanted pregnancies are risking their lives during unsafe abortions. Catholics and non-Catholics alike should no longer stand by and allow the ban to go unchallenged.

Consider that the institutional Catholic Church claims to provide treatment for 25% of those infected with HIV/AIDS – an estimated 40 million people were living with HIV/AIDS at the end of 2001. This means that approximately ten million people currently infected with HIV/AIDS are being treated by a caregiver who denies them information about and actual provision of condoms to prevent further spread of the disease. The 100 000 Catholic hospitals and 200 000 social service agencies worldwide that fall under the jurisdiction of the Vatican are forbidden from providing condoms and safer sex instruction – even to those who are not Catholic.

With AIDS devastating families on every continent and increasingly so in Europe, Catholic people know that condoms are important as much as those of other faiths or no faith do. Earlier this year, Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenberg, South Africa, summed up how many Catholics feel when he said, “When people for whatever reason choose not to follow the values we promote as a church – within and outside of our community – then the bottom line is the real possibility that a person could transmit a death-dealing virus to another through a sexual encounter.” Bishop Dowling went on to conclude that “the use of a condom can be seen not as a means to prevent the ‘transmission of life’ leading to pregnancy, but rather as a means to prevent the ‘transmission of death to another’.”

Over the years, bishops from France, the Netherlands, and Brazil have also publicly stated that condoms should be allowed to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. Yet the Vatican – rather the Holy See – in its capacity as a Non member State Permanent Observer at the United Nations, has used its political status at major humanitarian meetings, including the International Conference on Population and Development (1994), the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing (1995) and recently the Special Session on HIV/AIDS, to advance a religious view that opposes condoms and safe sex education. And in response to Bishop Dowling’s statement, the Southern Africa Bishop’s Conference issued a statement following their semiannual meeting, where they considered and rejected a change in their official policy banning condoms.

From the south to the north, Condoms4Life Campaign has created a media sensation. National and international television, radio and print outlets have covered the campaign, generating a real debate about the role the Catholic church hierarchy plays in AIDS prevention and the impact of their continued lobby against condom education and provision.

Although condoms are only one aspect of a multi-pronged strategy to HIV/AIDS prevention, and condoms will not and never will be panacea to the AIDS crisis, they are a necessary tool for many sexually active people around the world who are at risk of becoming infected with the deadly disease.

In keeping with Bishop Dowling’s affirmation that condoms prevent the “transmission of death,” Condoms4Life is a campaign promoting a culture of life where women and men have access to information and services to make responsible and healthy decisions about their reproductive lives. As Catholics, we take pride in the health care the institutional church provides, and we view the current bishops’ ban on condoms as a blindspot that inevitably will be corrected.

This article appeared in the Winter 2002 edition of Entre Nous.

Catholics for Choice