Posted Tuesday, April 25, 2006 at 11:12 a.m. CDT
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Vatican draft document would approve condoms for married couples with AIDS
Traditional ban on birth control still stands
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
A forthcoming Vatican document is set to state that use of condoms by a married couple, where one partner is infected with HIV/AIDS and the other is not, can be acceptable to prevent the transmission of the disease.
Sources say the document will insist that this position does not mark a break with the church's traditional ban on birth control, expressed in Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. What would be approved is not contraception, they say, but disease prevention.
Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragŕn, president of the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care, confirmed in an April 23 interview with the Roman newspaper La Repubblica that his office was asked by Pope Benedict XVI to prepare a document on the subject.
Speaking on background, an official in Lozano Barragŕn's office told NCR that the document will sanction the use of condoms to halt the spread of the disease "inside marriage and the family, not outside of it."
The official said the document has been approved by the consultors of the Council for Health Pastoral Care, and is now awaiting review from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He said it should appear shortly.
Experts caution, however, that until the pope approves a document and orders its publication, anything can happen.
The document caps a wide public discussion among senior church officials on condoms and AIDS. Among those who have publicly spoken in favor of condoms where one partner in a marriage is HIV-positive include Italian Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the former archbishop of Milan; Swiss Cardinal George Cottier, theologian of the papal household under John Paul II; Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium; Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster, England; and Bishop Kevin Dowling of South Africa.
In an October 2004 interview with NCR, Lozano Barragŕn himself took the same view.
"If an infected husband wants to have sex with his wife who isn't infected, then she must defend herself by whatever means necessary," he said then. This position, he said, is consistent with the tenets of traditional Catholic moral theology, which teaches that acts of self-defense can extend to killing in order to not be killed.
"If a wife can defend herself from having sex by whatever means necessary, why not with a condom?" he said.
On the other hand, Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, has spoken vigorously in favor of a more rigid stance. In a 2004 interview with the BBC, López Trujillo, a Colombian, claimed the HIV virus is small enough to "easily pass through" latex. Lopez also asserted that condoms encourage promiscuity, which he deemed among the root causes of the pandemic.
The new document "goes a little bit against López Trujillo," the official from the Council for Health Pastoral Care told NCR.
"Even if they're not foolproof, most studies show condoms can make a difference in stopping the spread of the disease," he said.
Moral theologians caution that until the precise reasoning in the document is known, how sweeping a statement it represents cannot be assessed.
One way of phrasing the key moral question is this: In the context of a married couple where one partner is HIV-positive is use of a condom merely a "lesser evil" that can be tolerated or is it a good that can be recommended?
If the document simply asserts that a condom is a "lesser evil," experts say it would do little more than ratify what is already a broad consensus among Catholic moral theologians.
Traditionally, confessors and pastors have long been permitted to counsel a "lesser evil" to prevent greater harm. For example, if a mob boss tells a priest he intends to kill an enemy, and if the mob boss can't be persuaded to change his mind, the priest could advise him to beat up the enemy instead. Under those circumstances, the priest is not approving the beating, merely tolerating it to avoid an even worse outcome.
As applied to condoms, the "lesser evil" argument works in a similar fashion. If there's a danger of HIV infection, it runs, a married couple should abstain from sex altogether. If they can't be persuaded to do so, however, it's better that they use the condom rather than endangering life. The same reasoning, in fact, applies to sex outside marriage. The condom is still immoral, it's just better than the alternative.
Phrased that way, most theologians say few would dispute the conclusion. The question is one of communications and pastoral judgment. Some doubt if it's wise for church leaders to speak openly about condoms as a "lesser evil," since the world may hear it as a blanket authorization for irresponsible sexual activity.
If, however, the new Vatican document goes further, saying that condoms can be morally licit in the context of married couples with HIV/AIDS because, in those circumstances, the act is no longer contraception, it would represent a victory for one side in a burgeoning theological debate over whether it's the physical nature of an act or the intent with which it's performed which should be most decisive in moral analysis.
Broadly speaking, some Catholic moralists argue that because the only licit form of sexuality takes place within marriage and must be open to life, intercourse using condoms is, by the physical character of the act, immoral. They point to Paul VI's insistence in Humanae Vitae that sexual activity must be "apt in itself" for the generation of children.
Respected ethicist Luke Gormally, writing in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly in January 2005, put the argument in graphic form.
"A condom is as inappropriate a receptacle for the deposition of semen as the anus," Gormally wrote. "Choosing to ejaculate into either amounts to the choice of a type of act which … plainly detaches sex from its ordering to the good of children. And that, as St. Thomas teaches, is the essence of 'unnatural vice.' "
Others, however, argue that wearing a condom during intercourse cannot have moral value in itself. It's the intent, they say, that matters.
"It's not sex with a condom that's intrinsically evil, but contraception," Redemptorist Fr. Brian Johnstone, a leading moral theologian at Rome's Alphonsian Academy, said in an April 25 interview with NCR. "If the purpose is saving life, then we're not talking about contraception anymore," he said.
If the new document embraces this line of thinking, Johnstone said, it would mark an important development in favor of a "non-physicalist" understanding of sexual morality.
[John Allen is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]
April 25, 2006, National Catholic Reporter