The Pope, condoms and AIDS

Pope claims condoms could make Africa Aids crisis worsePope Benedict's remarks about the use of condoms to address AIDS in Africa last week caused predictable controversy. They should be set in two different contexts: the West and Africa.

When AIDS first spread in the West it affected particularly the homosexual community. The response was tightly focused. It aimed to win the trust of the gay community, refrained from making any judgments about lifestyle and sexual orientation, educated people about the nature and the spread of the disease, and encouraged them to use condoms in all casual sexual encounters.

Together with the development of retroviral drugs, this strategy has been markedly effective in reducing the incidence and mortality from AIDS.

Within the Catholic Church there was little initial institutional response to AIDS. But like other churches, it has had to deal with the consequences of fear of AIDS. This intensified antipathy to and discrimination against homosexuals. It also led many Catholics and others to assert that discrimination would not be overcome until the churches recognised the equivalence of gay and heterosexual relationships. The same argument was made for the legalisation of gay marriage.

In the face of these pressures Catholic Church leaders insisted that the institution of faithful heterosexual marriage was central to health of society, and that it should be uniquely privileged. They also defended the Catholic understanding of sexuality and the transmission of life in strong and general terms. They believed that discussion of borderline cases, such as the use of condoms where the life of one partner was at stake, was used by critics to undermine Catholic teaching as a whole.

So within the Catholic Church the question of AIDS was linked to homosexuality. The plight of those exposed to AIDS and living with the disease was set within a broader context where the church's teaching on sexuality was felt to be under threat.

The African context was different. Because AIDS there was transmitted mainly through heterosexual intercourse, it affected many women and children. Widows left without income often left their villages, and were faced with the choice of turning to prostitution or of their own and their children's deaths. Without condoms, they would die either way.

In contrast to the Western world, religious congregations and parishes were extensively involved from the beginning in caring for infected and rejected women and children. The local Catholic sisters, priests and many bishops generally recognised the dilemma and some have spoken against an absolute interdiction of condoms.

But they also recognise that the instrumental and value free programs imported from the West were less effective in Africa. The spread of AIDS had cultural roots that also needed to be addressed. A view of marriage in which the woman was more than an object, the eradication of magical views of the causes and protections against AIDS, and a culture of mutual respect and of faithfulness within marriage, were required if AIDS was to be checked. These touched the consideration of human sexuality enshrined in church teaching.

The Pope's criticism of condoms should be seen within both these contexts. It was forged in a Western context, arguing against a view that saw the response to AIDS as simply a technological issue stripped of its moral components. This view suggested that human sexuality is purely a matter of individual choice with no ramifications for human flourishing or for human society. Within this context, to admit any use of condoms would be seen to endorse this instrumental approach and weaken the integrity of church teaching on sexuality.

But the Pope's words also reflect an aspect of the African experience of AIDS. There a value-free Western strategy has been inadequate because it does not deal with important cultural factors. These call for educational programs that touch the human values within sexuality. When the Pope says that condoms may make things worse, he could argue that to provide condoms without a moral framework will encourage complacency, will not guarantee their use, and will leave untouched the conditions that leave women and children infected.

Many in Africa who care directly for victims of AIDS will regard the Pope's comments as one-sided. They too recognise the need for a holistic approach to AIDS in Africa. But they believe that an unqualified opposition to condoms fails to take seriously the situation of the wives of infected husbands and of women forced into prostitution. Although the use of condoms does not offer a solution to AIDS in Africa, it can save some women and children from living and dying with the disease. They argue, too, that the use can be justified by traditional Catholic moral principles.

The Pope's words exemplify a paradox facing Catholic teaching on this, as on many other issues. The more that Church leaders propound in broad terms a Gospel ethic of generous and full living, the more they and the ethic are seen as narrow and uncompassionate.

The African context suggests that it may be better to leave the concerns of the West behind for a while, and to enter imaginatively the life of the African women and children and men infected by AIDS. Reflection from that perspective may suggest a way through ethical complexities and generate words that ring both true and compassionate.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.


Topic tags: andrew hamilton, pope benedict, condoms, aids, africa



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Existing comments

Isn't the issue even simpler than Fr Hamilton suggests? The Church in its public utterances and the Pope in particular through what he has to say have lost credibility as contributors to this broad discussion by the way they enter it. There is no argument that chastity and marital fidelity and celibacy if contaminated are commendable virtues. And there is no question that the Church through its services is doing more than any other institution globally to care for AIDS suffers.

So why isn't the message received and why does the Church and the Pope get a beating every time the subject is raised by them? A perverse world that is waiting to bash up the Church and the Pope? Maybe. But it also might be that that the Church and the Pope haven't yet learnt how to commend themselves to any but the initiated.

If the message isn't being picked up, there are two explanations: the world at large is dopey and perverse or the Church hasn't learnt how say what it wants to say.

Michael Kelly | 26 March 2009  

Nuance is everything and perception something else.Times were when newspapers reserved a small corner for 'Corrections', but this has now given way to 'Clarifications' which gives both reported and reporters more argy bargy room with each other.Nowadays a clarification tells us more about what a person meant to say.

The Vatican has been doing quite a bit of clarifying in recent times and few were surprised when what the Pope reportedly said sbout condoms on a plane to Africa that they 'even aggravatate the problem' was "clarified" to 'risk making the problem worse'.In a largely illiterate continent the differences can be lethal.

Condoms are not the only answer to AIDS and they're not foolproof but they're better than travelling in a runaway car without a seatbelt.Similarly,abstinence too is an option - one option.And monogamy clearly has a paramount value.

But in a vastly and deeply exploited continent like Africa..the epicentre of HIV, Popes and peasants alike need to grasp that HIV is grteatly assisted in its spread by ignorance, appalling poverty, rampant disease and the indifference of the wider world.Over there, such a little can do a lot.

Brian Haill | 26 March 2009  

my reaction to this is .. what do celibate people know about being sexually active? people who are not otherwise inclined to monogamy or celibacy are not going to just decide to do so - unless they're scared.

michael | 26 March 2009  

Mine is a purely emotional response.

It is the Catholic Church's official attitude to sexuality, contraception and family planning and the mental gymnastics of existing members of the Catholic Church to attempt to make this official view plausible to the broader society that continuously reinforces my view of how unrelated any of this is to the meaning of spirituality in the human condition - and hence its value to anybody.

Noel Will | 26 March 2009  

No doubt the islamic faith too, has its fair share of nutbags who want to propagandise their ideas, e.g. about how women should be treated.

richard | 26 March 2009  

When will someone explain to the Pope that he needs to frame his messages more carefully. Andrew Hamilton explains the issue in a way that can be easily understood and gives a great deal of sense to the Pope's message. I knew there was reasoning like this behind it but could not articulate it. Andrew's words allow an intelligent discussion. The Pope's message was truncated and open to misinterpretation. Of course those who wished to deride it would still have done so, but the rest of us would have had a better chance of explaining it to critics in our own circles. This is not the first time that the crafting of the message has betrayed the content.

Clair Free | 26 March 2009  

Considered, as always from Andrew. Before reading Andrew's piece I read Michael Czerney's article in Thinking Faith
They compliment each other. But I still have questions/reservations. I think Michael Kelly's comments on this site are apposite.

Micheal Loughnane | 26 March 2009  

It is good to recognise that there are no grounds for unqualified opposition to condoms of for absolute interdiction of them. My ethical reflections are situated in the Anglican tradition which since 1930 has recognised the responsible use of contraception as practiced in good faith by Christians in many denominations.

But, even other Christians who maintain that contraception may never be practiced, have no good grounds to argue that condoms may not be used, for example, in sexual activity between two males or between an infertile male and female. In such cases condoms have no contraceptive action or effect.

Ethicians can also produce reasons for condom use in the HIV/AIDS context from arguments about 'double effect', 'lesser of two evils', consequences of use or non-use, and so on.

Whatever the validity of these arguments,condoms have certainly contributed well to lessening the occurrence of HIV/AIDS in Australia and elsewhere.

Gerry Costigan | 26 March 2009  

The Church has to move away from a position of immutability to one where it realises that the faith and the thinking of the Church must be dynamic. It is necessary to remember that the Church is made up of and is here dealing with human beings. It is of no use to require abstinence or some such in these circumstances and, especiallly, where experience teaches that abstinence will not be accepted by so many in those areas of the world that are affected by AIDS.

There must be a realisation that here we have a huge human problem and where the lesser of two evils can be accepted. But nonetheless, I think that Andrew's article is a good basis for further discussion.

Adrian Bellemore | 26 March 2009  

Do the Vatican ‘ivory tower’ advisers to the Pope take any notice of what the bishops in the countries far away from Rome have to say? These bishops, with acute pastoral sense, understand the situation ‘on the ground’ in their provinces.

Cardinal Napier, Archbishop of Durban, was in Sydney last July for WYD and spoke on a late night TV interview with well reasoned sense on the matter of HIV/AIDS disease.

He promoted the ‘ABC’ approach, being a combination of appropriate behaviour and methods, complying with Church moral teaching, to successfully combat the disease.

‘A’ is for abstinence (from inappropriate sexual activity)

‘B’ is for ‘be faithful to your spouse; and

‘C’ is for ‘condoms to be used (within marriage) for disease prevention’, so that, for example, a wife need not be infected by an infectious husband.

Gerard Tonks | 26 March 2009  

Fr Hamilton's contributions are always incisive and helpful. This timely and useful analysis of the background and circumstances of the Pope's recent criticism provides a good starting point for a consideration of this difficult issue.

J L Trew | 27 March 2009  

Surprise, surprise: so many Eureka-ites who know how to express themselves better than the Pope,ready to direct him on Church teaching and governance and how best to communicate to the world!

Dan | 27 March 2009  

The African comments by the Pope on condoms is a symptom of a wider malaise in that the universal church cannot use universal lowest common denominator language when addressing issues of faith and morals. The culture of Africa, as has been rightly pointed out by Andrew Hamilton, has to be understood and comments on issues such as AIDS control dealt with with regasrd to the realiry of the particular culture. The same argument applies to the church in Australia where the majority of catholic families mostly ignore the law regardig contraception and the young are put off by the refusal to address the mistakes of the past. Cultural sensitivity is lacking here as well as in Africa.

Ken Fuller | 27 March 2009  

Andrew tells us that Africans require 'educational programs that touch the human values within sexuality'. Who is to develop these 'educational programs'?

Claude Rigney | 27 March 2009  

It is all very well and good for the Pope to judge and take the moral high ground in relation to AIDS and its spread, but where is the compassion? In Africa, men will still treat women as their property and demand sexual favours, therefore, saying that there should be abstinence is futile. Condoms are there to protect women and unborn children against the spread of AIDS and not as a political ploy on behalf of the Church.

African women who are dying from AIDS do not need for the Pope to be saying they are wrong for wanting a condom to protect them. Be real. In my humble opinion, the God I love and worship would rather have condoms be available than women and unborn children dying from a disease that could very easily be prevented.

Philippa Jayne Boyington | 29 March 2009  

Many years ago my mother was prescribed the pill for severe gynaecological problems. It was the last chance of avoiding a hysterectomy. Being a very observant Catholic she refused to agree to either treatment. Our parish priest intervened saying that the use of the pill or a hysterectomy were not being prescribed for contraception but as a medical treatment. To not cooperate with the treatment she was neglecting the 'temple of her body' and as such she was obligated to agree to treatment.

Surely this same argument could be applied to the use of condoms to stop the spread of a deadly disease rather than as a contraceptive device.

Can anyone tell me what the errors in my argument are because it seems to me that this is one way in which the teachings re contraception and the need to protect against the spread of this killer of the innocent wives and children of Africa and the Asia Pacific.

Liz Munro | 31 March 2009  

I wonder how many people who commented here actually bothered to read the Pope's comments in full, and not just the media reports? There'd be no need to ask "where is the compassion"...

But the facts are Pope Benedict is right here. Condoms aren't the answer for Africa. The evidence is there for anyone who wants to google it - the countries that have thrown condoms at the problems continue to have horrifying rates of HIV infection. While the countries that have gone for abstinence & faithfulness as their main weapons in the fight against AIDS have actually succeeded in getting their rates down.

Not that long ago, I was firmly in the camp of people who considered what the Church had to say about sexuality as entirely irrelevant, and more importantly, entirely wrong. It's been quite the humbling experience to have my eyes opened to the truth.

Gosia | 31 March 2009  

The African bishops - those on the spot - agree with the Holy Father.

Gabriel Austin | 01 April 2009  

the moral issue with condomistic intercourse performed to prevent HIV infection isn't, I think, about contraception.

It's that condomistic intercourse, even done for noble ends such as the prevention of infection, isn't real sex, but is something like masturbation or oral sex. Now these, too, could in theory be performed with a preventative motive. But the Church & natural law stipulate they are never justified, even for such purposes.
More particularly: none of these acts is a marital act - the only form of completed sex permissible.

Humanae Vitae para 12 lays down the tests for a marital act:
"... the fundamental nature of the marriage act, while uniting husband and wife in the closest intimacy, also renders them capable of generating new life".

Condomistic intercourse fails to share in this fundamental nature of the marital act on two counts:

1. It fails to bind the couple in the closest intimacy.

For there is a closer level of intimacy than condomistic intercourse, namely intercourse without a condom, whereby the generative fluid from the man comes into actual contact with the woman's body.

2. Use of the condom renders the couple INcapable of generating new life

Hope this helps.

Hugh | 06 April 2009  

The weakness of the Church's argument, repeated in this article 'Within this context, to admit any use of condoms would be seen to
endorse this instrumental approach and weaken the integrity of church teaching on

The Church is adopting a reductionist approach to matters sexual. The broad tenant of this teaching is unimpeachable: sexuality is a component of the human experience and has, therefor a moral and ethical context which, if ignored, leads to dehumanisation.

So far, so good. The next part is contentious: let's distill that general principal, cheese paring down to close analysis of individual acts. Every sexual act open to the possibility of the transmission of life is a counsel of perfection. For the family with difficulties with ths, overburdened already with children or facing grievous risk, they have to make their own decisions within the broad ethical and moral frameworks - and they have to act in a moral, but not perfect manner.

The rich young man couldn't make the step to perfection, sell everything etc, but Christ had already said that he had done everything necessary to obtain eternal life. So, what's the big deal?

The Pope has a duty to declare what he and the larger Church see as the moral and ethical dimensions of sexual or any other human issues. But they err when they try to dictate a counsel of perfection onto people already suffering in the agonies of living and loving. Doesn't the Papacy and Curia believe at all in the Spirit moving in the world? Obviously, if they have to dictate the minutia of human behaviour, irrespective of the context in which people find themselves, then they are sayng that the Spirit is all very well,but if we don't try to control everything, the world is lost. Grandiose thinking?

Denis McMullen | 18 April 2009  

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