Pope on condoms and Aids: the background
As a journalist and commentator, I have been followed the arguments over the morality of condoms in the context of Aids for some years. Pope Benedict's remarks in Light of the World finally clarify this question, ending the silence from Rome.
The point argued by moral theologians was always this. The Church is opposed to artificial contraception, not condoms per se. Just as, in Humanae vitae, the Pill may be used for medical purposes (to prevent heavy bleeding, say), if the intention of using a condom is to prevent infection, not pregnancy, then it was not contraceptive in intention. The point is obvious that -- not to put too fine a point on it-- a condom used between two men can hardly be considered contraceptive in its purpose; and the same would be true if a husband who returns from the mines infected with HIV uses one to stop his wife getting infected.
While at The Tablet in 2004 I dealt with the fallout from a BBC Panorama investigation into claims by the then head of the Vatican's family council, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, that condoms were ineffective in Africa. In researching the article it became obvious that certain conservative Catholics were claiming something that did not seem obvious at all -- that the Church was effectively telling someone who was at the risk of transmitting or being infected by Aids that they should never use a condom, because a condom was inherently contraceptive and therefore evil.
I ended up commissioning an article from a moral theologian in Rome, a member of Opus Dei and very close to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which took people by surprise. Fr Martin Rhonheimer expressed the consensus among moral theologians:
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".
Fr Rhonheimer, needless to say, was heavily attacked by pro-life and pro-family groups -- as have been many in the Church who have raised their voice on the issue, such as Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg in South Africa.
In 2005-6, the issue kept breaking into the news as the Church's policies were criticised by international organizations. The frustrating thing was that the Church's argument -- repeated forcefully by the Pope -- that condoms were not the answer to Aids, that condoms-based policies in Africa had failed to curb the spread of the virus, was backed up by the evidence. The solution lay in behaviour change, or what the Pope here calls the "humanization of sexuality" -- monogamy, chastity, abstinence; and condoms campaigns, with their covert message that it was ok to engage in irresponsible sexual behaviour, undermined that message.
Yet the idea that the Church was telling people at risk of infection never to use a condom made the Church's witness on this issue at difficult. It appeared as if it was it was inhumane and heartless -- for the sake of holding a dogmatic line on contraception. In a society which smells hidden victims behind institutions, this made many angry -- and rightly.
In 2005-6 some cardinals were pointing out that the use of a condom in the context of Aids may be a lesser evil, or justified under the doctrine of double effect. Cardinals Danneels of Brussels, Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster, and Barragan of the Vatican's Health Care council took that view; other cardinals insisted that the Church's ban on contraception extended to the use of condoms in all circumstances.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor shortly before becoming Pope that "we can't have cardinals disagreeing about this" and set up a commission of moral theologians to look into the question.
And there the issue lay, and no more was heard.
In 2008, while at a conference in Rome, I happened to meet a senior CDF official (I won't give his name) and asked him what had happened to the commission. "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 pressed him, that the Vatican feared the headlines that would result? "Exactly," he said. "It would be confusing for the faithful." There was "just no way", he said, that the Vatican could make this clarification without seeing headlines like "Pope backs condoms" or "Church in reverse on contraception".
His remarks depressed me -- although I understood the communications difficulty.
In February this year, it came to light that the commission had been stood down, and that the report had "never got off the ground" in the word's of the Health Council's deputy, Bishop Redrado. I wrote an indignant piece here, entitled "The suppression of theological truth". It frustrated me that, as a media commentator, I could not articulate what I knew the Vatican believed without being attacked by some Catholics for failing to uphold church teaching.
Now, it seems, Pope Benedict has decided to use the relatively informal, under-the-wire format of a book interview to signal what seems to the outside world as a historic shift but which is no more than expressing what is obvious. But it is a risky thing to do, and Pope Benedict's courage is to be saluted.
But at least we can now have a real discussion about the issue -- and the Church can speak with the moral authority which, as the organisation which does more than any other for Aids sufferers in Africa, it surely has.