Condoms and Common Sense

Last week marked a rare moment in the Catholic Church. Common sense and a modest amount of compassion trumped authority and fear-based moral teaching about sexuality.

In his just-released book-length interview with the Pope, Light of the World, German journalist Peter Seewald asked a question about the inclusion of condoms in HIV/AIDS prevention: “Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?”

Benedict’s response:

She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.

This exchange summarized several hundred words on the subject. The Pope repeated frequent Vatican claims that condoms are not the answer to AIDS before adding, for the first time that:

[T]here may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.

…if you’re a woman, a man, or a transsexual. Were at the same point.”

The reference to “male prostitutes” threw people off for a day. Liberals complained that the exception was too narrow and negatively focused on perhaps the most unsympathetic and marginal category of those with AIDS. Conservatives breathed a sigh of relief that it was very narrow and seemed to implicitly exclude married couples. The Vatican responded, not by backtracking, but by expanding the “exceptions.” Federico Lombardi, the Jesuit priest and spokesperson for the Pope, told reporters:

I personally asked the Pope if there was a serious, important problem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine. He told me no… It’s the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship. This is if you’re a woman, a man, or a transsexual. We’re at the same point.

Many bishops, theologians, and Catholic AIDS workers must have breathed a cautious sign of relief—among them Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who has said it would be a sin for an HIV-positive person to have sex without a condom, since he or she would be violating the commandment against killing; or the South African Bishop, Kevin Dowling, who has supported condom use “in order to prevent the transmission of potential death to another.”

Moderates among the clergy, and theologians who have been critical of the blanket opposition to condoms, are too numerous to mention—but even conservatives have had trouble with total opposition to condoms, most especially as it extends to married couples. Consider a 2004 Tablet article by Opus Dei priest Martin Rhonheimer, excerpted last week by Kevin Clarke at America magazine:

The teaching of the Church is not about condoms or similar physical or chemical devices, but about marital love and the essentially marital meaning of human sexuality. It affirms that, if married people have a serious reason not to have children, they should modify their sexual behavior by “at least periodic” abstinence from sexual acts. To avoid destroying both the unitive and the procreative meaning of sexual acts and therefore the fullness of mutual self-giving, they must not prevent the sexual act from being fertile while carrying on having sex. But what of promiscuous people, sexually active homosexuals, and prostitutes? What the Catholic Church teaches them is simply that they should not be promiscuous, but faithful to one single sexual partner; that prostitution is a behaviour which gravely violates human dignity, mainly the dignity of the woman, and therefore should not be engaged in; and that homosexuals, as all other people, are children of God and loved by him as everybody else is, but that they should live in continence like any other unmarried person.

But if they ignore this teaching, and are at risk from HIV, should they use condoms to prevent infection? The moral norm condemning contraception as intrinsically evil does not apply to these cases. Nor can there be Church teaching about this; it would be simply nonsensical to establish moral norms for intrinsically immoral types of behaviour. Should the Church teach that a rapist must never use a condom because otherwise he would additionally to the sin of rape fail to respect “mutual and complete personal self-giving and thus violate the Sixth Commandment”? Of course not.

What do I, as a Catholic priest, tell AIDS-infected promiscuous people or homosexuals who are using condoms? I will try to help them to live an upright and well-ordered sexual life. But I will not tell them not to use condoms. I simply will not talk to them about this and assume that if they choose to have sex they will at least keep a sense of responsibility. With such an attitude I fully respect the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception.

No Official Teaching on Condoms

Greater advocacy for a clarification (one never uses the word “change” in relation to official Catholic positions) gained momentum in 2004 following Steve Bradshaw’s eye-opening 2003 BBC documentary Sex and the Holy City, which featured an interview with then-president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, who told the program:

The AIDS virus is roughly 450 times smaller than the spermatozoan. The spermatozoan can easily pass through the ‘net’ that is formed by the condom. These margins of uncertainty… should represent an obligation on the part of the health ministries and all these campaigns to act in the same way as they do with regard to cigarettes, which they state to be a danger.

The World Health Organization condemned the Vatican’s views, saying: “These incorrect statements about condoms and HIV are dangerous when we are facing a global pandemic which has already killed more than 20 million people, and currently affects at least 42 million.”

While the Vatican defended Trujillo’s remarks as scientifically valid, it was internally rocked by the public reaction as well as the dissent by high-ranking Church officials. Early in his papacy, Benedict established a theological commission to explore clarifying the question. After all, as Rhonheimer notes, there is no official teaching on condoms per se. By 2008, hope that the commission would move the church toward open acknowledgement that condoms to prevent the transmission of AIDS was permissible faded and no report was ever issued.

A Fixation on Heterosexual Marital Intercourse

Why then, has the Pope moved in this direction now? There is no doubt that the majority of theologians and clergy are theologically astute enough to know that the use of condom to prevent transmitting a deadly disease or the pill to regulate painful and irregular menstrual cycles is permitted. But during the worst years of the AIDS pandemic—before anti-retrovirals, and with full knowledge of how many people (especially women and children) would die before behavior change could possibly significantly affect transmission—Church agencies and the Vatican obstinately fought efforts aimed at including condom education or provision in their programs.

The sad answer by those who should have known better was usually that the Vatican feared that people would not be able to distinguish between the use of condoms to prevent the spread of a deadly disease and the use of contraceptives. There was more concern with the possibility of headlines that read “Church reverses stand on contraception” than with the millions who were dying.

It will be seen as churlish in the face of the Pope’s welcome comments to point to the past (and probably to continuing sins) around making condoms available, but it is not unfair. The Pope’s remarks to Seewald—and the reactions of mainstream clergy, even those who are progressive—still centers on what for many is the crux of the problem: a sexual and procreative ethic that is based on long abandoned fallacious understandings of “natural law,” and a fixation on heterosexual marital intercourse for the purpose of procreation as the only legitimate expression of human sexuality.

Caritas International, the official Vatican umbrella for poverty eradication, including AIDS work, welcomed the Pope’s remarks; but Msgr. Robert Vitillo, the Special Advisor on HIV and AIDS immediately added: “I would like to… emphasize my strong conviction that the Church’s teaching, which insists on sexual abstinence outside marriage and lifelong, mutual fidelity within marriage, is indeed scientifically valid and has offered evidence-based proof that people who observe such behavior have been able to prevent the spread of HIV.”

Sex as a “Sort of Drug”

He then set up the straw proposition that has erected barriers between the global AIDS community and Catholic services claiming that “reduction of sexual partners and delay of onset of sexual activity—are much closer to the Church’s teaching on sexuality and on prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections than is an exclusive focus on condom promotion. Regrettably, however, many scientists, HIV prevention educators, and AIDS activists are so fixed on condom promotion that they do not give due attention to the risk avoidance that is possible to achieve through abstinence outside marriage and mutual, lifelong fidelity within marriage.”

Who, one asks, are these scientists who believe in the “exclusive focus on condom promotion?”

In some sense Vitillo only echoes the Pope’s perception that “the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves.”

One wonders at what experience of human sexuality blinds so many in the Church, most particularly clergy, to the many expressions of sexual love that occur among people who have never married, were once married, or use contraception to ensure responsible parenthood and to prevent high-risk pregnancies.

Where is the awareness of the more than 350,000 women in the developing world who die in pregnancy; many of whom did not desire or have the capacity to care for another child?

Why is there so much concentration on what is bad, or “disordered” sex? Perhaps it is this approach to sexuality that is “banal,” rather than one that focuses on the range of loving, justice-seeking relationships.

Much has been made in Catholic circles of an attempt to better argue the Catholic case against contraception by arguing for a new theology of the body and an emphasis on sex as sacred.

Unfortunately, the contraceptive blind spot keeps getting in the way. The most recent comments from the Vatican on the Pope’s intentions in his remarks on condom use emphasize his desire to “kick-start” a discussion. It would be fair to ask: a discussion about what? And to wonder if there might be an openness to those who have an alternate vision of human sexuality to that which has dominated official discourse over the last 30 years.