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Condoms discussion returns to traditional moral norms

  • 18 May 2006
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. It 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. A 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