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Condoms discussion returns to traditional moral norms


 Is Pope poised to sanction condoms?The recent report of the Rome correspondent of the London Independent, Peter Popham, that “The Catholic Church is on the brink of a historic change of approach over condoms” will be welcome news to millions in Africa particularly and in other parts of the world devastated by Aids. But it will also be welcomed by the not a few distinguished moral theologians who for upwards to ten years have been recommending such a change. The movement has gained momentum recently with the support of half a dozen Cardinals and a number of African bishops whose representations could not so easily be ignored by the Vatican.

Humanae VitaeIt will be interesting, however, to see under which moral principle the Vatican subsumes the change – if indeed it does do so. It is important to remember that the 1968 Encyclical Letter of Paul VI, 'Humanae Vitae', only forbade the use of contraceptives in a conjugal relationship when they were used exclusively or primarily for contraceptive purposes. One could use the contraceptive pill for other therapeutic purposes, e.g., for 'rebound' fertility therapy, for a female athlete wishing to prevent menstruation, etc., provided that, as in these instances, the intention was not primarily contraceptive. It has been argued that this same line of 'double effect' reasoning could be used in the case of an Aids-infected conjugal relationship where the intention is presumably not contraceptive but life-saving. But there are difficulties with this solution. The traditional Catholic understanding of the marriage act requires that sperm be deposited in the vagina – which the condom effectively prevents.

L'Espresso - il dialogo tra il Cardinale Maria Martini e lo scienziato Ignazio MarinoA second line of justification invokes the right to self-defence. A wife is justified in using defensive measures to protect her health and life when sex with her husband will threaten either or both, as is demonstrably the case in an Aids–infected conjugal relationship. But traditionally this line of reasoning has been invoked when the husband is insistent on his marital rights. Can its application be extended to all cases of Aids-infected conjugal relationships? Hitherto the Vatican has argued that there is an alternative: abstinence. But perhaps there is a further line of argument, namely, that such enforced abstinence will cause the relationship to wither on the vine, and to that degree it is necessary (the “insistence” dimension) to permit condom-protected sexual relations. This is not the “ideal” morality which the Church usually espouses, but it is a realistic “morality for a broken world”.

Principle of Double EffectA final line of justification is the 'lesser evil' argument which was recently invoked by Cardinal Martini in his conversazione with the medical professor, Ignazio Marino. While it is not a good thing to use a condom, it is better than endangering a life. This line of argument has most secular appeal. But the Vatican is uneasy with this 'ends justifies the means' line of reasoning, smacking as it does of utilitarianism.

Benedict XVI is a sophisticated theologian, and is no doubt aware of all these justifications and their difficulties for the Catholic tradition. But a willingness to open the matter for discussion is a sign of his sophistication, and of his awareness of the ongoing attempts of moral theologians to find a morally acceptable Catholic solution to this human catastrophe. It will be more than interesting to see if the Vatican can change in the face of this pandemic, and, if so, whether it can do so by invoking one or other of these justifications in such a way that continuity with traditional moral principles is preserved.

Bill UrenFr Bill Uren SJ is Rector of Newman College at the University of Melbourne and a member of the Australian Health Ethics Committee.



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Fail to understand Card. Martini's "lesser evil" argument. Isn't it a good thing for a man who is HIV to use a condom while making love to his wife? Why does he need the pope's "permission" to follow the 5th Commandment? Isn't it also a good thing for men in general to make love to their wives, even when they can not (or dare not) have another child? This was one of the conclusions of the Pontifical Commission on Population, the Family and Birth, which said that such a couple had a duty to use the most efficacious means to prevent conception. For 54 of the Commission's 59 members, motive was more important than method. More than 90 percent of Catholic couples in the western world follow +this insight and reject the pope's so-called teaching. According to the long-standing Catholic doctrine of reception, this means that the papal teaching is not a teaching at all.

(Kaiser is the author of The Politics of Sex and Religion, a history of the papal birth control commission.)

Robert Blair Kaiser | 16 May 2006  

The essential reality that has to be grasped in the current global debate on condoms is that it can no longer be considered simply as a birth control issue: it's a fatal disease prevention issue.

When churchmen first banned the condom because they viewed it as a means of blocking the transmission of the delivery of male sperm, Planet Earth hadn't even heard of HIV and its appalling consequences that have, to date, killed some 25 million people, infected over 40 million others, kills 3 million each year and infects 5 million each year.

For anyone to deny the use of condoms as a lifesaver, especiually in regard to those married people who have an HIV infected partner, is to completely disregard the sanctity of human life.

To assert, as some church leaders have -especially in Africa- that the avoidance of a condom in such situations could virtually fast-track one a place in heaven is to be condemned in the strongest possible terms.

It also needs to be grasped that the most dangerous environment for a women to become HIV infected is in marriage itself!!!

We regard ourselves as a Catholic AIDS-care agency, having been invited to take up (which we did) membership of Catholic Social Services Services Victoria more than a decade ago although it now disregards us.

The Episcopal Vicar for Social Services within the archdiocese of Melbourne, Reverend Fr Kevin Mogg, is also on the public record applauding the work we did for the Catholic Church in Melbourne on behalf of people living with HIV/AIDS.We cannot, in conscience, support its anti-Christian stance in regard to HIV protection.Wile, indeed, it does much for the care of people with HIV/AIDS across the world, everyone would agree that prevention is always the better option.

We invite readers to browse our website at www.aids.net.au to see the practical works that we are presently engaged upon in caring for people struggling tio live with HIV/AIDS.

Brian Haill,
The Australian AIDS Fund Inc.,
PO Box 1347, Frankston,Victoria,3199
Ph: (03) 9770 9210
Email: bhaill@bigpond.net.au

Brian Haill | 16 May 2006  

The comments of Brian Haill and Robert Blair Kaiser trying to push the Catholic Church into approving condoms are simplistic and narrow in focus.

These facts assembled by columnist Andrew Bolt demonstrate that Pope John Paul 11 (and his predecessors) were spot on in promoting Church teaching.

'It is a fact that Pope John Paul II opposed condoms, telling African bishops again not long before his death that "fidelity within marriage and abstinence outside are the only sure ways to limit the further spread of AIDS infection".
So is this the advice that killed millions?
First, to believe that we must believe Africans are so obedient to the Pope that they won't wear a condom, but also so disobedient that they'll still have casual sex.
WE'D also have to believe that more were killed by having unprotected sex outside marriage than were saved by doing as the Pope said and zipping up. We must further believe that most or very many Africans are Catholic, and are hit hardest by AIDS.
Naturally, the truth is the very opposite.
The countries with the worst HIV infection rates in the world turn out to be Swaziland and Botswana, where more than a third of adults have the virus -- but only 5 per cent are Catholic.
Botswana, incidentally, is pro-condoms, not that it seems to have helped much.
In contrast, Uganda, where half the people are Catholic, is the one African country that has slashed its rate of infection -- from a devastating 15 per cent of all adults to "just" 5 per cent. And, heavens, it worked this miracle by doing much as the Pope had preached.
Since 1986, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, backed by religious leaders, pushed his ABC program -- telling people to Abstain until marriage, Be faithful to their partner, and, if all else fails, to wear a Condom.
This morals-heavy message was not welcomed by the usual condoms-please AIDS experts, many the kind of folk now heckling the dead Pope. Yet it worked so well that Dr Edward C. Green, a prominent AIDS adviser and medical anthropologist from Harvard's School of Public Health, was driven to write Rethinking AIDS Prevention, to warn us to learn this lesson.
"I said it in my 2003 book that the single most important behavioural change (in Uganda) was fidelity, and most of that is marital fidelity," Green has explained.
"The second change is the proportion of youth engaging in sex -- that went down in a big way."
Fancy that. Christian morality makes you safer. How scary is that to a progressive? And in case you're wondering, Green says he's a "flaming liberal" who doesn't go to church or even vote Republican. He just follows the facts.
To make things worse, he adds: "Twenty years into the pandemic, there is no evidence that more condoms leads to less AIDS."
If they did Africa, which imports about 700 million condoms a year with the help of international agencies, would not today have five million people with AIDS.
Indeed, the University of California's Professor Norman Hearst, who has studied infection rates in condom-happy countries such as Kenya and Botswana, warns that pushing condoms and the safe-sex message so hard encourages people to be promiscuous, thinking they're protected.
They're not, of course. As Hearst says, condoms sometimes fail; so if you have enough sex with enough people enough times, you're flirting with danger.
The moral of the story? The Pope was largely right: saving sex for marriage is the best defence against AIDS. Save sex, not safe sex. We've seen it work, as other leading AIDS workers agree.
Last year, for instance, respected AIDS experts appealed in the British Medical Journal for more to be done to preach faithfulness instead of just condoms.
"It seems obvious but there would be no global AIDS pandemic were it not for multiple sexual partnerships," said the gurus, from groups such as the Global Fund for AIDS, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the US Agency for International Development.'

Pat Healy | 17 May 2006  

In this comment, I will seek to explain the traditional rationale behind the argument from the lesser evil. This approach has the advantage that it can show how counseling the use of condoms can be morally acceptable, without in any way challenging the doctrine forbidding contraception. It is thus more likely to be acceptable to Church authorities. It is a very old argument; it goes back to a text of St. Augustine and was accepted by many, but not all moral theologians for centuries.

The argument would be relevant in a situation where a person who carries the virus is determined to engage in intercourse and cannot be persuaded otherwise. The counselor has two options; say nothing and simply allow that person to go ahead and endanger the life of his partner or counsel the use of a condom so as to protect the life of the partner.

A recent Tablet editorial claimed that, according to Humanae Vitae, “There is no leeway for arguments about a lesser evil.” This is not correct. Humanae Vitae states, “Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, . . .” (n. 14) But, in the case under discussion, counseling the use of a condom as the lesser evil does not entail the counselor’s justifying deliberately contraceptive intercourse or justifying the use of the condom as a means of contraception.

To justify an action is to commend that action as right and as a good thing to do. The counselor does not commend the use of a condom as a means of contraception, but as a means of blocking the transmission of the HIV virus. These may seem to be rather fine distinctions, but we sometimes need such distinctions to find our way through complex human situations.

Brian Johnstone, C.SS.R.
Alfonsian Accademy

Brian Johnstone, C.SS.R. | 17 May 2006  

This 'ideal morality' that you speak of, which the church imposes, is an imposition that seems very fanatical to me. Derived over the centuries from a patriarchal view, those most affected by it, women, have not been consulted. Those imposing this ideal morality are most likely, as oridinary human beings, to have seriously erred. So stop pussy footing around with theological argument and leave women to decide how best they can survive their sexual relationships and practices.

Jo Dallimore | 28 May 2006  

all situations are grey not black and white.humanity is complex and requires wisdom and non-judgement.it is christ-like and buddhist to be detached and show wisdom regarding others.

rose heard | 09 September 2006  

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