A Church response to Aids
The broadcast on South African television of a BBC-produced documentary on the Catholic Church and condoms–more than six months after its original telecast in Britain–may well have inflamed public perceptions of the Church.
It is evident that the producers of the documentary were gunning for the Church instead of applying the principle of dispassionate journalism. The producers allowed wild denunciations of the Church to stand without a balanced Catholic response.
Much was made of a Ugandan Catholic woman who refused to use a condom in the conjugal act with her HIV-infected husband. No mention, however, was made of the bishops of Southern Africa, who in their 2001 pastoral statement A Message Of Hope left such decisions to the conscience of such a couple.
The programme also failed to acknowledge nuances in Catholic approaches to condoms and Aids.
It did however demolish the assertion made by Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, that condoms are an invariably unsafe method of protection against HIV infection.
It is unfortunate that the condom issue should obscure all the admirable Church initiatives in the field of Aids. Catholic Aids activists wish that the Church’s response to the Aids pandemic would not be measured by its teachings on condoms. However, these teachings, and the reasoning underpinning them, are so controversial that such obfuscation is virtually inevitable.
The Church’s theology on Aids, still in its nascent stage, will have to evolve. There are good reasons backed by moral theology why the Church’s position on condoms and Aids need not be immutable.
Pope Paul VI applied the principle of double effect in his 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae, which banned artificial birth control–including condoms–but authorised the use of the contraceptive pill when prescribed to manage irregular menstrual cycles. Although such medication precludes the conception of new life, Pope Paul taught that using it as part of medical treatment constitutes no moral offence.
Likewise, the condom ceases to be an instrument of birth control when used to prevent the transmission of the HI virus.
It is legitimate to ask whether people who engage in non-marital sex should compound their error by putting their partner–who may or not have a choice in such sexual relations–at risk of infection and death?
Of course, even if the Church were to review its teachings on condoms, it is self-evident that abstinence outside marriage and fidelity within marriage are the only forms of safe sex. Only when this is not possible should the condom be regarded as a tool that may decrease the risk of infection. It is therefore inconceivable that the Church should ever promote condoms, never mind fund or distribute them.
While there is no scientific evidence to suggest to what extent, if any, the promotion of condoms encourages promiscuity–as many in the Church argue–a comprehensive anti-Aids policy must emphasise sexual responsibility in a time of Aids. Surely it is an excessively pessimistic assumption that people are inevitably incapable of controlling their sexual impulses. The Church’s emphasis on abstinence is therefore correct.
Abstinence, however, is not always a matter of choice. Sexual relations are governed by all sorts of dynamics and pressures, social and economic. As a result, many women (who in Africa constitute the majority of Aids sufferers) do not command autonomy over their own bodies.
It is with these vulnerable women in mind that the Church hierarchy might reconcile its doctrinal with its compassionate nature, and revisit its unconditional condemnation of what for many is the only protection against Aids.
Please support The Southern Cross
Your support means we can keep Catholic news alive so that many others will have free access to the high-quality, trustworthy news they deserve. We seek your support not simply to survive, but to grow in our mandate to share the Good News and keep you informed about your Church and Catholic faith.
Every contribution, however big or small, makes a difference. Support us today â€“ it only takes a minute. Thank you.