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Austen IvereighFebruary 11, 2010

The Vatican has admitted shelving a theological report into the morality of the use of condoms to prevent Aids, reports The Tablet's Rome correspondent, Robert Mickens.

The study was undertaken in 2006 by the Pontifical Council for Health Care, and submitted to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) by the Council's then head, the Mexican cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán. The cardinal said on that occasion that his 200-page dossier contained a spectrum of views on the question of whether it was legitimate to use condoms to protect someone from catching Aids. But on 5 February, writes Mickens, "the pontifical council's long-time secretary or no. 2 official, Bishop José Luis Redrado, said the detailed study had never 'got off the ground'."

What Bishop Redrado meant but couldn't say is that the CDF rejected the idea of there being any public change to official church opposition to the use of condoms to prevent Aids. I know this is true, because in 2008, while in Rome, I asked a high-ranking CDF official (it was a private conversation, so I won't give his name) why nothing had happened with the theological report. "Everyone knows that theologically there is a strong case for clarifying that teaching," he told me, "but there's just no way of doing it publicly without it being misunderstood." Do you mean, I said, that the Vatican feared the headlines that would result? "Exactly," he said. "It would be confusing for the faithful." But don't you think, I pressed him, that if something is doctrinally true, that was more important than whether it was likely to be misunderstood? "But there's just no way," he repeated.

In fact, it was the then Cardinal Ratzinger who asked for the report.

In 2005, when I worked for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, this was a very live issue. The Church was accused in the media of making the Aids crisis worse by opposing the use of condoms to prevent its spread. In fact, condoms are not the solution to Aids in Africa, and as the Pope last year pointed out, their promotion has contributed to the spread of Aids for a whole host of reasons (in a Guardian piece I wrote on this I explain why). But the question in moral theology still remains of whether it is morally preferable for an infected man to use a condom than not to use one. The consensus of moral theologians -- and this was doubtless reflected in Cardinal Lozano Barragán's report -- is a firm YES.

While at The Tablet I commissioned from the Opus Dei moral theologian Martin Ronheimer -- a CDF adviser -- an article responding to one I had written on the subject in which I had quoted a bizarre argument that the use of a condom by an Aids-infected man was a sin against the Sixth Commandment. Ronheimer pointed out the error in that view.

As a BBC Panorama programme recently suggested, the Church is thought to teach that sexually active homosexuals and prostitutes should refrain from condoms because condoms are "intrinsically evil" (The Tablet, 26 June). Many Catholics also believe this. One of them is Hugh Henry, education officer of the Linacre Centre in London, who told Austen Ivereigh in last week's Tablet that the use of a condom, even exclusively to prevent infection of one's sexual partner, "fails to honour the fertile structure that marital acts must have, [and therefore] cannot constitute mutual and complete personal self-giving and thus violates the Sixth Commandment".

But this is not a teaching of the Catholic Church. There is no official magisterial teaching either about condoms, or about anti-ovulatory pills or diaphragms. Condoms cannot be intrinsically evil, only human acts; condoms are not human acts, but things. What the Catholic Church has clearly taught to be "intrinsically evil" is a specific kind of human act, defined by Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, and later included in No. 2370 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as an "action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible".

The whole article is worth reading, but the point is clear. If the intention is not to avoid life but to prevent death, then it is not contraception. Aids was not around at the time of Humanae Vitae; but had it been -- it surely follows -- condoms to prevent infection would have been included under the passages in the encyclical which allow for artificial contraception for non-contraceptive (medical) purposes.

Later, when I went to work for Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, public disagreement broke out between cardinals: Lozano Barragán and Daneels of Brussels, for example, expressed the moral theologians' view, while others tied themselves in knots claiming that this was contraception, and therefore prohibited. Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor informed me after one visit to Rome that Cardinal Ratzinger had told him that "we cannot have cardinals disagreeing about this". Soon after came the news that the report had been commissioned from a group of eminent moral theologians. Now, it seems, what I was told in Rome has been confirmed: the report will never see the light of day.

What is essentially a communications problem has been allowed to trump theological truth. Of course, the communications problem is not simple: how do you clarify this question while avoiding headlines accusing Rome of a U-turn? "Condoms can be used to prevent Aids, Vatican admits" is the story that haunts the CDF. The problem is not just that the clarification would be misinterpreted, but that it would suggest that a condom-based approach to Aids in Africa was, after all, the solution, and therefore could risk undermining the Church's prophetic stance on the issue. 

Yet it would not be hard to produce a statement that would minimise misunderstanding. It could say: 1) the use of condoms to prevent the transmission of Aids is not contraception, and therefore morally licit if the intention is to prevent infection; 2) infected men are nevertheless called to chastity, because condoms sometimes fail, and failure is fatal; 3) the solution to Aids in Africa is monogamy and fidelity, and tackling the sources of poverty and instability in the continent.

Would that be so hard? Would it really be misinterpreted that badly?

By choosing not to say anything  -- and by burying the report -- the Church remains vulnerable to the accusation that its teaching on this point is inhumane and irrational. But even worse is the deliberate supression of theological truth for fear of being misunderstood. It is mundane. It is cowardly. It is not worthy of a teaching authority which proclaims that the truth sets us free.

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Michael Barberi
14 years 5 months ago
The use of condoms to prevent disease is just the tip of the iceberg.  This entire issue relates to birth regulation as taught by Humane Vitae and subseqent encyclicals on this and related subjects.  Any form of artifical birth control is morally evil according to the Vatican.  However the Vatican committs a larger evil by not sufficiently enforcing and clealy communicating its message about birth regulation.  Read on.
The majority of cathollics use some form of artifical birth control.  Everyone knows this as fact.  However most catholics don't confess such practices as a mortal sin before receiving holy communion.  According to the Vatican such acts are sacriledgious.   How tragic and obsurd.  Priests and Bishops across the world guide catholics to ''go with your conscience'' on the subject of birth regulation.   This is not what the Vatican teaches.  Yet the Vatican permits such guidance by its Priests and Bishops to continue.  The Vatician turns a blind eye towards theological guidance that, according to its own teachings, condems its flock to hell.  The Vatican cannot simply point to an encyclical and say ''the Church has spoken'' and not manage its administration.  That is like the head saying one thing and allowing the body to do something different.  I don't know who is more intrinsically evil.  Regardless of how many times I raise this specific issue, no one wants to address it!
Craig McKee
14 years 5 months ago
Plus ca change:
''The Vatican has admitted shelving a theological report into the morality of the use of condoms to prevent Aids, reports The Tablet's Rome correspondent, Robert Mickens.''
They did exactly the same thing with the 1998 ICEL translation of the Roman Missal:
Don't like the results or conclusions arrived at by serious professionals, JUST PUT IT ON A SHELF for a few hundred years or so....
Patrick Murtha
14 years 5 months ago
I find this conversation ironically amusing. Most people are simply missing the whole point of sex. It's that plain and that simple. Every human action has a final cause - a primary purpose. The simplemindedness of broadminded people miss the point entirely because they are simply too broadminded. They try to swallow the whole dinner in a single gulp. As a consequence, they lose the flavor of the individual parts.

The final cause of sex is children. It's only reasonable because we look at the immediate affect of sex - procreation. It's like eating, the final cause of eating is to nourish the body. However, that does not mean that pleasure is not involved. (I know I love eating, but I also know that if I eat with no other purpose than the pleasure of eating, I am a glutton, I will become obese, and I will be, plain and simply, unhealthy.

Sex is for procreation. There is pleasure involved, God in His wisdom put the pleasure there so that man will have sex. It's a fact. Doesn't it say in Genesis, "Wherefore a man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they shall be two in one flesh." In other words, a man shall marry a woman - husband and wife - and they have children - "Increase and multiply."

It is purely for selfishness that humans want the pleasure without the pain, that they want the action without the reaction, that they want the sex without the children.

Therefore it is only right that the Church defends the Truth of God by declaring the use contraceptives and condoms as sinful because it attacks the primary end of sex.
John McCloskey
14 years 5 months ago
This article highlights a damning problem within modern Catholicism, and the use of condoms is merely an example. We live in fear of true, open and honest discussion. We have half and eye on public relations all the time, and half and eye on the lawyers. Our other eye is blinded by the notions that the faithful are ignoramuses who are just a hair's breath away from utter confusion, and the clergy, if left to actually speak and debate, would careen out of control. We are blindly trying to lead a blind world.
While the pope is quoted in the article as saying that "we cannot have cardinals disagreeing with each other on this matter," I ask: "Why not?" Why not have open debate on issues. The debate will clarify the truth. Why not admit the truth that good, well trained minds may come to different reasonable conclusions of some issues? Why do we expect our presbyterate to avoid discussing issues with candor, reflecting their training, and their pastoral experience?
We seem to live in an age where even the slightest hint that issues ought to be discussed openly will result in reports to chanceries, nuncios, and, God forbid, Rome. There seems to be more respect for honest exchange of views and the dignity of the human mind in the secular press, and in the halls of democratic governments than there is in the Church today.
Jesus said: "Say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no. Anything else is from the evil one." We seem intent on saying neither yes nor no, except when it is pronounced from on high. Only then may we speak and then we may only repeat the correct phrases. Is it any wonder that our homilies are insipid? Is it any wonder why we dither when we should lead the culture?
Eugene Pagano
14 years 5 months ago
Is Mr. Mickens' report online?  If so, what is the URL?
This is quite shocking.  In effect, the accusation is that the Vatican has not only suppressed theological truth, but also sent people to their deaths.
Beth Cioffoletti
14 years 5 months ago
This whole post strikes me as very strange.
Really, are you inferring that banning the use of condoms is a ''theological truth''?  And that this ''truth'' - that the only licit form of sex is heterosexual and marital (and without a condom) - is what the Church claims to set us free?  Premarital, masturbatory, or homosexual sex are wrong, end of discussion - and this is the truth of human life that the Church must uphold or else everything else will be held in question?
If you happen to live in a country where 47% are HIV positive, you must not use condoms, so that means that you can never have sex.  If you are infected and have sex without a condom, you are potentially committing murder.  If you are not infected and have sex without a condom, you are potentially committing suicide.  And then you ask, is this so hard?
I must be missing something, on a different wavelength or something.
Sex is more than it appears to be.  At a purely physical level, it releases unconscious springs of playfulness and relaxes tensions.  But sex is also serious fun.  And sacred.  Yes, it can make babies, but it is also packed with psychological and liturgical power.  We ARE sexual beings.  You can ask adult men and women to be more responsible in their sexual behavior, but you don't ask them to turn it off.   
Healthy spirituality and healthy sexuality go together.  The touchstones of both are respect, justice, hope and joy.  How in the world does the Church ever expect people to come to know the sacredness of sexuality if they are forever harping on the sin and wrongness of it?
I hope I'm just over-reacting ...
Eric Stoltz
14 years 5 months ago
More tortuous Thomistic twisting. Apparently the official Vatican position is now that every act of extra-marital sex must be open to procreation, because it must involve self-giving. But only sex within marriage is self-giving; all the rest is ''selfish lust.'' So children should only be born within marriage, but if you have sex outside marriage, you must have children despite the fact it was really just an act of selfish lust. Now if you engage in selfish lust, it must be self-giving and open to procreation because.. .well, because we said so. Now go away and stop asking questions! Also, things can be intrinsically evil now. And that's not Manichean, because well... um. Also. Shut up.
Beth Cioffoletti
14 years 5 months ago
P.S.  Reading the linked article helped me to better understand what Mr. Ivereigh is trying to relay in this post:
The Church is between a rock and a hard place on this one.  They are damned if they say anything and damned if they don't.
(maybe it isn't so black and white?)
Carolyn Disco
14 years 5 months ago
This goes back to a post by John Coleman SJ last June in which he wrote that South Africa’s “Bishop (Kevin) Dowling has become a lightning rod for some of the more conservative factions in the church, because of his stand on the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS.”
Indeed, a number of comments castigated Dowling and Coleman’s nuanced article for dissenting from church teaching about condoms.
I hope the article by Martin Ronheimer of Opus Dei that Ivereigh links to settles the matter.
 “This is not a plea for “exceptions” to the norm prohibiting contraception. The norm about contraception applies without exception; the contraceptive choice is intrinsically evil. But it obviously applies only to contraceptive acts, as defined by Humanae Vitae, which embody a contraceptive choice.
Not every act in which a device is used which from a purely physical point of view is “contraceptive”, is from a moral point of view a contraceptive act falling under the norm taught by Humanae Vitae… a married man who is HIV-infected and uses the condom to protect his wife from infection is not acting to render procreation impossible, but to prevent infection. If conception is prevented, this will be an “unintentional” side-effect…”
As the Vatican debates secrecy about telling the truth for fear it will be misinterpreted, I am reminded of Chris’ comment last June that “There must be a sin for watching people die while waiting for theology to catch up. “
Carolyn Disco
14 years 5 months ago
As for abstinence and Uganda's lower infection rate, from my prior post:
Contrary to earlier reports that such programs were successful, it turns out the reason for the lower infection percentage of the population was due to a high fatality rate in the period covered, not a lower incidence. And the ABC slogan used stood for: Abstinence, Be faithful, and if A & B fail, always use condoms.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation study, “The researchers found that the ''single greatest factor'' in Uganda's declining HIV prevalence rate is premature death among HIV-positive people who died of AIDS-related causes during the study …
The number of HIV-positive people who died each year of the study was about 70% more than the number of people newly infected with HIV annually…
The study's findings suggest that Uganda's ''much-lauded success'' in reducing its HIV prevalence has ''little to do with'' the abstinence and monogamy programs… the study's findings emphasize that ''condoms are the main preventive tool against HIV''
Promoting the C as well as the A and B in the ABC slogan is important.
Brian Thompson
14 years 5 months ago
I could see how the Vatican might want to be cautious on this. After all, we do belive and teach that there are some moral objects and acts that by their natures cannot be ordered to good.
The question at hand is whether or not the use of barriers during sexual intercourse is an act which is universally evil. Yes, motive and end do weigh on such evaluations, but ends cannot legitimate evil means. Evil side-effects may be begrudgingly put up with, and proportion does enter in there, but the evil may not be the cause of the good. I myself do not know whether condoms are devices whose only reasonable use is always and everywhere evil. I am inclined to say yes, but far more learned men than I know far more about the fine points of this moral problem, and I my intuitions are not magisterial.
Their contraceptive use is gravely immoral always and everywhere. but, in wider health care, prophylactic devices and precautions to halt the spread of disease are great goods (eg Doctors wearing gloves). but the question is: can the contraceptive use of a condom can be divorced morally from its prophylactic use?
We know that hormone treatments that happen to render a woman infertile or greatly reduce her fertility are OK if they are medically necessary to heal the body or maintain its health, while those same drugs are a terrible personal and societal evil if used intentionally for contraceptive purposes. Thus, it is not inconceivable for what the average person would see as a contraceptive to be used for a good purpose.
On the other hand, the added efficiency and greater amount of information that can be gathered from allowing torture during interrogations cannot be divorced from the great and inexcusable evil of the sin of torture. Thus, to be a little flip, "I just wanted to stop the terrorists, but alas the prisoner ended up with burns and cuts and psychological damage, whoops!" doesn't exactly work.
Concrete situations of history aside, not because they are irrelevant but because if something is evil at the root it cannot be redeemed by circumstance, If the prophylactic use indeed can be morally divorced from the contraceptive effect, we must then ask the question whether the present situation in Africa would be such that the prophylactic use would, in concrete reality, be justifiable? I would think that it would be, if condoms could in principle be used prophylacticly
We should take care to think about this clearly, but not coldly. After all, to be compassionate but sacrifice truth is not really charity at all, but insisting on the truth without compassion is not love either.
14 years 5 months ago
Then many of his disciples who were listening said, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?"  John 6
"I do not pray for success, I ask for faithfulness"  Mother Teresa
Brian Thompson
14 years 5 months ago
It might then be the case that the prophylactic use is indeed unacceptable and we need to find another way to fight the spread of AIDS. It may not be legitimate to employ the "easy" western solution of throwing condoms at poor people. We might need to explore other, and perhaps more difficult, solutions to this problem. 
In a war, scorched earth is the simplest policy, but the most unacceptable one as well.
Quentin de la Bedoyere
14 years 5 months ago
It’s important to look at the issue behind the issue here. The condemnation of barrier contraceptives in HV was based on the application of the natural law to the structure of the sexual act. In artificially depriving the act of its openness to conception evil was intrinsically done. This has nothing to do with intention. It was this argument which the traditional theologians in the papal commission accepted that they were unable to prove. 
It follows that to accept that barrier contraceptives are permissible as prophylactic is to drive a coach and horses through this principle. That is why the Vatican will not face up to the question. Their whole position is threatened by it.
It’s important to look at the issue behind the issue here. The condemnation of barrier contraceptives in HV was based on the application of the natural law to the structure of the sexual act. In artificially depriving the act of its openness to conception evil was intrinsically done. This has nothing to do with intention. It was this argument which the traditional theologians in the papal commission accepted that they were unable to prove. The phrase in HV which specifically refers to it is: ''The Church...teaches as absolutely required that any use whatsoever of marriage must retain its natural potential to procreate human life. (italics in document)
It follows that to accept that barrier contraceptives are permissible as prophylactic is to drive a coach and horses through this principle. That is why the Vatican will not face up to the question. Their whole position is threatened by it.
Gregory Popcak
14 years 5 months ago
What strikes me about this is how effective dialog and reasonable discussion is prevented because of 40 years of shrill and reactive rejection of the Church's positions on contraception by progressives.
It appears, from this post at least, that the main concern behind shelving this discussion is the question of scandal.  That is, there is a fear of further confusing the faithful on a matter that is already the source of so much confusion.  But all this begs the question, "Why are the faithful so confused in the first place?"
The answer is two-fold.  First, of course, because the Church's positions are so countercultural it takes an extra effort to understand.  But second, and even more important, is that even when people make the effort to understand Church teaching the faithful encounter so much equivocation, explaning away, dissent, and outright hostility that they often leave even more confused than they were before they attempted to seek clarification.  It is precisely because of this atmosphere of hostility that Magisterium cannot afford to attempt a more sophisticated discussion of the issues without unintentionally leading to even more confusion by giving the appearance that the Church is giving up ground on certain core moral truths. 
In short, the truth is not being sacrificed because of  Vatican unwillingness to be creative in the face of very real contemporary problems.  Rather, the truth is being sacrificed because the atmosphere of hostility, created by ongoing progressive rejection of Catholic sexual ethics, hijacks the discussion and prevents a more sophisticated dialog from occurring.
This might seem like an attempt at blame shifting, but I don't intend it to be that at all.  It is merely a suggestion that if we want this discussion to move forward, and we all should, then progressives need to do a better job of promoting what is already settled and established teaching about contraception, NFP and other issues related to sexual morality.
In sum, you can't build an addition to your house when someone else is trying to dynamite the foundation.  And you especially don't have a right to criticize the homeowners for not building if you're the one setting the charges.
Christopher Carr
14 years 5 months ago
Thailand proves that widespread condom use is sufficient to establish herd immunity. In sub-Saharan Africa, one of the things preventing widespread condom use is the Catholic Church’s stance on the issue. That stance is frankly inexcusable in the face of reality, which is that many Africans, especially married women, are not in the position to control their own sexual risk factors. The spread of AIDS in Africa is a tragic problem with a clear moral imperative and a clear scientific solution. The Catholic Church, with its vast infrastructure and ability to bypass political entanglements, should be spearheading the effort to distribute condoms to sub-Saharan Africa, not standing in its way:http://www.theinductive.com/blog/2010/2/13/the-catholic-church-one-step-forward-two-steps-back.html
David Pasinski
14 years 5 months ago
Thank you, Beth, for all of your comments. Your sensibileness and sensitivity are both valued.
Quentin's remarks seem insightful also. There is litttle hope for the church's credibility with sexual ethics until it reforms its trucated views on the experience, meaning, and purpose of sexuality based upon the lived experience of loving, committed persons.
Also, Austin,  please use  "AIDS" not "Aids" to describe this disease. As known, it is an acronym.
Beth Cioffoletti
14 years 5 months ago
Patrick Murtha, I beg to differ.
Just as the act of eating means far more than nourishing the body, so the act of sex means far more than procreation.
Both are inborn liturgies that are intrinsic to our humanity.
There are two aspects to sharing a meal with others: one is physical - food, the other is symbolic.  You don't invite people to a meal because they are hungry or because they are low on protein.  You invite them to show love and respect and to celebrate.  And this brings you to the symbols: candles, table cloths, china.  It's like you are setting up an altar.
Like dining, sex is also a natural liturgy.
Like a meal, sex also involves both physical realities and powerful symbolism.  Sexually charged love is especially bonding.  Interestingly, the physical facts of sex symbolize what sex tends to do psychologically.  There is not just physical nakedness, there is emotional nakedness.  We trust our partner with full exposure of our passions and needs.  We shed our emotional clothing and cosmetics and present ourselves as we are.  Sex is a huge act of trust.  Sex bonds, and bonds powerfully.
I dare to conjecture that for mature human beings the primary end of sex is emotional bonding, not procreation.
(Happy Valentine's Day!)

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