Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Austen IvereighNovember 20, 2010

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.



Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
13 years ago
<Too often, important information is defered, even hidden, because those in power cannot accept (do not want to accept) that the people of God can think on their own when given good, complete, and accurate information.>

The problem is that those "in power" include not only the hierarchy but the media -large outlets all the way down to individual bloggers - and other self-proclaimed, many ill-informed themselves, authorities.  Read the comments to reports about the pope's statement on, e.g., CNN, and see how little thinking actually goes on even when given "good, complete, and accurate information."  Some people believe that the pope has blessed contraception and homosexual prostitution.

And then there is the speculation that comes from the reporters that the pope's statement suggests that he will extend this exception to married couples in which one person has an STD.  Pure speculation, yet people will believe it.  

With all of the people still contracting HIV in the US notwithstanding all of the preventative information out there, it's clear that the people just don't know how to control their sexual urges; and frankly, the pope's statement doesn't really help matters.
Jack Barry
13 years ago
Excellent piece in the midst of instantaneously triggered world-wide confusion.   While we wait for translations confirmed as accurate and, one hopes, Vatican clarification, many questions arise. 

Why, with the advantage of forethought, pick a prostitute for one illustrative example involving the 'humanization of sexuality'?   The 'world's oldest profession' has been around a lot longer than the Catholic Church and is not likely to die out or change behavior before the Church does.
Does it make a difference in the moral judgment, and why, if: 
-  the prostitute's customer is male or female?
-  the person with whom the prostitute is interacting is spouse or customer?
-  the prostitute is acting altruistically to avoid infecting others or selfishly to avoid becoming infected?

It is now well known that, for a healthy, fertile woman, the 'transmission of life' is absolutely impossible about 80% or more of the time in every month, year, and decade.  Human nature as God created it is usually contraceptive.   Yet, the Church's requirement does not forbid conjugal acts during those intervals.   The acts cannot 'remain open', as required, since they aren't open in the first place.  Major clarification is required, a la Fr. Rhonheimer.   Informing the world is rather easy in the 21st century, given a clear message that is understandable by its intended recipients.
Hugh Henry
13 years ago
''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,
As the point man in this argument, can I say ...

My thesis is unchallenged either by Pope Benedict's recent locution or by Fr Rhonheimer's argument in 'The Tablet'.

My point was that condomistic intercourse is not marital intercourse, and, like all other completed sexual acts which are not marital intercourse, can never be morally permissible.  Fr Rhonheimer in his Tablet article in response to my remarks simply failed to address that issue. His argument was that use of a condom to prevent disease infection was not in itself - intrinsically - a contraceptive act. I readily hold - and held - this to be a possibility. But even if it is, it doesn't negate my point.

Even Fr Rhonheimer - to his great credit - has since acknowledged that it is a possibility that condomistic intercourse may not be a marital act. He has recently stated of his earlier held position regarding condomistic intercourse and HIV/AIDS: ''...when I wrote this I did not consider it correct to say that such an act of sexual intercourse [Condomitic intercourse - HH] could nevertheless lack the property of being a real marital act, as, for example, Luke Gormally has argued against me, and which is also John Finnis's view, expressed to me in personal correspondence. Their solidly argued view receives strong support from the tradition of canon law. This is why I have written in this very journal, ''I acknowledge the strength and coherence of the canonistic tradition and am aware of the difficulty of challenging it. I do not do this without taking into account the possibility that I might be wrong.'' (National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, Autumn 2009, p 417)

I have recently posted a short piece in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly which I believe adds additional support for my view from the very text of Humanae Vitae itself: ''A Two Limb Test in Humanae Vitae'' National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, Winter  2009 629-630.

The latest from america

A Reflection for the Feast of St. Andrew, Apostle, by Cecilia González-Andrieu
Cecilia González-AndrieuNovember 30, 2023
Gloria Branciani alerted church authorities about Father Rupnik's behavior years ago, but her fight with the church system was, as she recalled, a lost battle.
Federica Tourn- OSV NewsNovember 30, 2023
This deep dive episode of “Inside the Vatican” explains the key events and dynamics of the synod, combining recordings from synod events with a diverse selection of interviews, inviting you to “listen in” on this historic meeting.
Inside the VaticanNovember 30, 2023
A Homily for the First Sunday of Advent, by Father Terrance Klein
Terrance KleinNovember 29, 2023