Signs of the Times

AIDS and Condoms: Issue Far From Settled at the Vatican

As the world paused in early December to assess the gravity of the AIDS epidemic, the Vatican found itself under a fresh barrage of criticism on the issue of condoms. "Activists Blast Vatican Stand on Condoms," "Catholics Should Challenge Church’s AIDS Claim," "U.N. Official Slams Vatican and In the Fight Against AIDS," "Catholics Can Only Be Ashamed" were just a few of the headlines appearing in major publications around the world. Never mind that the church estimates its agencies provide 25 percent of the care to AIDS sufferers worldwide. For many, the only real issue is the church’s failure to support condom campaigns.

The condemnation of the Vatican’s position was all the more pointed in the wake of recent comments by a top Vatican official, Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, who told the BBC that the latex used in condoms was porous enough to allow the AIDS virus to pass through. Several medical experts dismissed the cardinal’s remarks as inaccurate. Some accused him of carrying out a Vatican disinformation effort.

In the face of all this negative publicity, the Vatican kept a low profile. Its major health care statement on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, did not mention the question of condoms; no Vatican official addressed the controversy, and Joaquín Navarro-Valls, the papal spokesman, declined to answer questions on the subject.

There were good reasons for downplaying the condom issue. For one thing, the Vatican does not have an official position on the question. Pope John Paul II, for example, has never specifically addressed whether condoms could or should be used in AIDS prevention. Nor is it taken up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. We’ve never published a document on this. "Some individuals have made remarks, but that is not the same as an official position," Maurizio Faggioni, a Franciscan priest and moral theologian who is a consultor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said in an interview. "I’m amazed that the press continues to attribute to the church and the magisterium positions that have never been expressed," he said. He rejected the idea of a Vatican crusade against condoms, saying the reality is much more complex.

In fact, one reason the church has made no definitive pronouncement on the use of condoms against AIDS is that there is continuing theological debate on the issue. Some of the debate is going on inside Vatican offices. Father Faggioni said the doctrinal congregation has discussed the issue from several viewpoints. So far, he said, it has concluded that there is not much new to sayuse of condoms against the threat of AIDS is seen not so much as a novel doctrinal issue but as a pastoral question involving individual Catholics and their confessors. Over the years, a few Vatican officials have responded to journalists’ questions by stating simply: The position is very clear. The church does not accept condoms. But behind the scenes, there is considerable evaluation going on.

Father Faggioni, for one, believes a case can be made for the use of condoms by Catholic married couples seeking to protect themselves from AIDS. I maintain that there can be situations in which the use of the condom is licitnot as an exception but licit in itselfbecause it is used with the goal of health protection, he said. In such a case, there is not an intention of contraception, which is what the church finds morally objectionable about the condom, he said. Father Faggioni emphasized that he was speaking about sexual acts within the context of marriage. He said he was thinking of the pastoral reality in places like Nigeria, where there are hundreds of Catholic couples with one of the partners H.I.V.-positive, and where pastors must try to help them deal with the question of conjugal relations. Father Faggioni said many of these couples would, in fact, like to have children but do not want to risk death by having sexual relations without a condom. In these cases, condom use can be morally defended, he said.

But other moral theologians take a different stand. At the Lateran University’s John Paul II Institute in Rome, the Rev. José Noriega, who specializes in sexual ethics, said the condom is always a technical solution that risks deforming the value of married love as taught by the church. The Rev. Jean Laffitte, a moral theologian at the same institute who advises the doctrinal congregation, said it was important to remember that the church’s no to condoms stems from its vision of married love as a form of self-giving that may indeed require sacrifices. He said there is a practical issue, too: If the church says yes to condoms for AIDS protection, many Christian couples would question why contraceptives are not also justified by other serious reasons.

Vatican officials say the press often wrongly assumes that the church opposes condoms for anyone and under every circumstance. In fact, many church experts would say that the contraception teachings have real relevance only within marriage; all other sexual activity is already considered immoral by the church, so whether a condom is used or not is beside the point. In these other contexts, the problem is not condoms. The problem is disordered sexuality, Father Faggioni said.

From a public health standpoint, the church has been critical on other grounds. For one thing, some Vatican officials have suggested that the widespread use of condoms may encourage promiscuous sexual activity, which itself is a factor in the spread of AIDS. Church officials have also noted that condoms are not 100 percent effective, and so cannot offer complete protection from the AIDS virus. Father Faggioni said that leaves a dilemma. Even while the condom does not offer individuals complete protection against the disease, one can understand that for health authorities it’s better to use condoms and lower the level of the epidemic, he said.

Sometimes church agencies have discovered room for cooperation with organizations that promote condoms in the battle against AIDS. Earlier this year, Caritas Internationalis and the Joint U.N. Program on H.I.V./AIDS signed an agreement to work more closely togethereven while noting, in footnotes, their different approaches to the condom issue. Some Catholic experts believe that despite its misgivings, the church should simply allow health authorities to do their jobsespecially given the dimensions of the AIDS epidemic. The church has certainly never taken a position against a serious health policy that is truly for the good of the people, Father Faggioni said.

One Vatican official who asked not to be identified said there was strong sentiment at the Vatican for bishops not to publicly criticize or oppose their governments for handing out condoms. Whether that ever will be said publicly is another question. A measure of the issue’s sensitivity can be seen in the fact that in 2000, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers announced it was nearing completion on guidelines for church personnel working with AIDS sufferers. Three years later, the document is still awaiting final approval.

Vatican Sees Long Road for Iraq Even After Saddam’s Capture

The capture of Saddam Hussein may help bring peace to Iraq, but it does not change the fact that the war was useless, and served no purpose, a leading Vatican official said on Dec. 16. Cardinal Renato R. Martino, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said the Vatican wants Saddam to receive a fair trial for alleged crimes during his long dictatorship. As in other cases, the Vatican is opposed to the death penalty for the fallen Iraqi leader, he said. The cardinal said he hopes Saddam’s capture contributes to peace and the reconstruction of Iraq.

Cardinal Martino voiced displeasure at the television broadcast of images showing a bedraggled Saddam undergoing a medical examination shortly after his detention. What caused me pain was seeing this ruined man, treated like a cow whose teeth are being examined. They could have spared us those pictures, he said. I felt compassion for him, the cardinal said. He described Saddam as a man of tragedy, with heavy responsibilities for the crimes he committed.

The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, said the dictator’s detention widened the prospects for an era of peace, justice and normal life in Iraq. An informed Vatican official, who asked not to be identified, said the Vatican hoped Saddam’s arrest would help contribute to improving the security situation. But there were doubts that would happen, the official said, because Saddam appeared to have been isolated from insurgents. It certainly didn’t seem like he was the head of a resistance movement or the organizer of all the attacks that are being carried out. He seemed like a fugitive on the run, the official said.

News Briefs

Any behavior by a priest that leads to scandal must be investigated and dealt with immediately by the local bishop, Pope John Paul II said. Scandalous behavior must at all times be investigated, confronted and corrected, the pope said in a talk to the bishops of Sudan on Dec. 15.

A recommendation on Dec. 16 by a U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory committee to make emergency contraception, sometimes called the morning-after pill or Plan B, available without a doctor’s prescription was described as a reckless experiment by a spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops.

Because of changes in demographics, a shortage of priests, a decrease in regular Mass attendance and the financial difficulties and disrepair of many parishes, a substantial number of parishes will have to close in Boston, Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley said on Dec. 16. He outlined a process for closing dozens of parishes, the first to occur as early as June. The Archdiocese of Boston has taken out short-term loans from a variety of sources to pay clergy sex abuse settlements totaling approximately $90 million.

Bishops in western India took part in a demonstration to call attention to human rights violations in the troubled state of Gujarat. More than 500 human rights activists attended the daylong demonstration demanding an end to human rights violations and ensuring that the rule of law be respected.

13 years 6 months ago
Fr. Maurizio Faggioni, a consultant to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is quoted as saying "I maintain that there can be situations in which the use of the condom is licit...because it is used with the goal of health protection."

It has always astounded me that the Church has promoted and defended a theory of just war with all of the evils and atrocities that war brings and yet with condom use it is as rigid and unbending as an iron rod.

I write this as a father of six and a practictioner of Natural Family Planning. Certainly we could develop a Just Theory for the Use of Contraception where 1)a married couple intends something that is good; 2)the situation they are responding to is grave, e.g. infecting a spouse with the HIV virus or sending a spouse into depression when clinical depression has been established; 3)the good that is intended is greater than the evil that will happen, of preventing pregnancy; and 4)there is a serious prospect of success.

I write this also as a pastoral minister for over 20 years working with youth and families. Most people have simply ignored the church's teaching on contraception. The last report I read indicated that less than five percent of Catholic couples use Natural Family Planning. Because our teaching is so black and white the Church is cut out from any serious involvement in shaping the conciousness of couples around the issues related to human sexuality and procreation.

13 years 6 months ago
Fr. Maurizio Faggioni, a consultant to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is quoted as saying "I maintain that there can be situations in which the use of the condom is licit...because it is used with the goal of health protection."

It has always astounded me that the Church has promoted and defended a theory of just war with all of the evils and atrocities that war brings and yet with condom use it is as rigid and unbending as an iron rod.

I write this as a father of six and a practictioner of Natural Family Planning. Certainly we could develop a Just Theory for the Use of Contraception where 1)a married couple intends something that is good; 2)the situation they are responding to is grave, e.g. infecting a spouse with the HIV virus or sending a spouse into depression when clinical depression has been established; 3)the good that is intended is greater than the evil that will happen, of preventing pregnancy; and 4)there is a serious prospect of success.

I write this also as a pastoral minister for over 20 years working with youth and families. Most people have simply ignored the church's teaching on contraception. The last report I read indicated that less than five percent of Catholic couples use Natural Family Planning. Because our teaching is so black and white the Church is cut out from any serious involvement in shaping the conciousness of couples around the issues related to human sexuality and procreation.

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