Aids, condoms, and the suppression of theological truth
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.