Why did Pope Benedict decide suddenly to address the issue of AIDS and condoms? And why did he do so in the way that he did?
From what he tells Peter Seewald in "Light of the World", he was frustrated by the reactions to his remarks on this issue during his trip to Africa in March 2009. The media firestorm which followed showed that three beliefs were widespread in western society: that condoms were the solution to AIDS in Africa; that the Church’s teaching on contraception implied a prohibition of condom use by people engaged in immoral and high-risk life styles; and that when Pope Benedict said that campaigns promoting condoms to combat AIDS in Africa were “ineffective”, it was thought he was referring to claims made in 2004 by Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, then head of the pontifical council for the family, that condoms were too porous to act as an effective barrier to the transmission of the HIV virus.
Pope Benedict was keen to dispel those myths, and in his book-long interview he does so in a few brief paragraphs. He made clear that campaigns promoting condoms trivialize (“banalize”) sexuality, causing the virus to spread further, and that only by “humanizing” sexuality can the spread of the virus be curbed. But he went on to say that the use of a condom by a prostitute, when used to prevent infection, would be at least “a first assumption of responsibility;” and in saying this he implicitly dismissed the two other myths: for if condoms were ineffective in curbing virus transmission among high-risk groups, it would not be responsible to use them. And if, as some had claimed, the Church taught that condoms were “intrinsically evil”, then the pope could hardly recognize their use as a “first step” on the way to moral development.
Personally, I was much relieved that he made the last point clear, because when, some years ago, I argued as much in an article (“The truth about condoms”, 10 July 2004) in "The Tablet" of London, I was accused by a number of good and faithful catholics of advocating the distribution of condoms to stop the AIDS epidemic and, therefore, of undermining the Church’s efforts to defend the values of marriage, faithfulness and chastity. But while the article drew public criticism, mainly from colleagues in moral theology, I was informed that the congregation of the doctrine of the faith, then headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, had no problem with it or its arguments.
What led me to write that article was that in the preceding "The Tablet", its then deputy editor, Austen Ivereigh, in an article commenting on a BBC "Panorama" program examining the claims of Cardinal López Trujillo, contrasted two positions in the Church on the question of the use condoms against AIDS.
The first was that of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, at that time archbishop of Brussels, whom he quoted as saying: “If a person infected with HIV has decided not to respect abstinence, then he has to protect his partner and he can do that – in this case by using a condom.” To do otherwise, the cardinal said, would be “to break the fifth commandment”, that you shall not murder.
The second was a quotation from the then education officer of the catholic Linacre Centre in London, Hugh Henry, who, disagreeing with Cardinal Danneels’s statement, told Ivereigh that the use of a condom was a sin against the sixth commandment, which, “in failing to honour the fertile structure that marital acts must have, cannot constitute mutual and complete personal self-giving and thus violates the sixth commandment.”
This suggested that, as Ivereigh wrote, a “migrant worker who goes to a brothel in South Africa should not, of course, have sex; but if he does, Henry appears to suggest, he should not use a condom to prevent giving the woman AIDS because his act fails to honour the fertile structure that marital acts must have.” And he concluded: “Readers must decide whether it is Cardinal Danneels or the Linacre Centre which is offering the stranger advice.”
It was my view, reading this article, that both pieces of advice were essentially flawed, and the choice between them a fallacious one. The problem was that both were expressing their positions in terms of moral norms or obligations – to use or not to use a condom – whereas a normative approach was inadequate for addressing this question.
What the Linacre Centre proposed as the authentic catholic position was that there exists a moral obligation for unchaste people engaging in sinful sexual acts at least to abstain from using condoms – so as to avoid a further sin against the sixth commandment and therefore to render their sinful acts less sinful, even if they thereby will infect other people or themselves with a deadly disease. Such an argument makes people falsely believe that it is the Church’s teaching on contraception which leads to such counterintuitive consequences; but that teaching is concerned essentially with marital love and its expression in sexual intercourse, and does not apply in such circumstances. Conversely, while Cardinal Danneels’s position has some plausibility, it simply reverses Henry’s fallacy by converting now into a moral norm for such people the obligation to at least use a condom, in order not to sin additionally against the fifth commandment. Like Henry, Cardinal Danneels thus establishes a moral norm in view of making intrinsically immoral behavior less immoral.
To turn first to the Linacre Centre statement: the teaching of "Humanae vitae" does not include the statement of a moral norm about how to perform intrinsically evil acts; the Church has never pronounced such a teaching, nor will she ever do so, because such a teaching would be plainly against common sense. The only thing the Church can possibly teach about rape, for example, is the moral obligation to completely refrain from it, not how to carry it out in a less immoral way. There are contexts in which moral orientations completely lose their normative significance because they can at most lessen an evil, not be directed to the good; what has to be overcome, and is normative to surmount, is the intrinsic moral disorder itself. As I wrote in 2004, “it would be simply nonsensical to establish moral norms for intrinsically immoral types of behaviour”.
The Church’s teaching about contraception is not a teaching about “condoms”, but about the true meaning and sense of sexuality and marital love. The question of contraception is different from the question of prophylactic condom use. Contraception as declared to be intrinsically evil is described by "Humanae vitae" n. 14 (restated in the Catechisms of the Catholic Church n. 2370) as an action which “whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes [Latin "intendat"], whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible." Contraception is not simply an action which in fact impedes procreation, but an action impeding procreation which is precisely carried out with a contraceptive intent. (The factual impeding of conception is not sufficient for an act to be, in a moral sense, an act of contraception; this is why using anti-ovulatory pills for regulating a woman’s cycle for medical reasons is not contraception in the moral sense).
But does it follow that one should positively advise to use condoms for merely prophylactic purposes? People who are not willing to change their way of life and who use condoms to prevent infection of themselves or others seem to me to have at least conserved a certain sense of responsibility – as Pope Benedict himself said [in “Light of the World"]. But we cannot say they “should do so” or are “morally obliged” to do so, as Cardinal Danneels seemed to suggest. Pope Benedict underlines this when he makes clear that this is not a “moral solution”. That is why it is also wrong to assert principles in this case such as “lesser evil”, which holds that in order to avoid a greater evil a lesser evil may be chosen if there is a proportionate reason. This moral methodology, known as “proportionalism”, is not a teaching of the Church, and was rejected by Pope John Paul II in his 1993 encyclical "Veritatis splendor" – with which Pope Benedict XVI is in full agreement.
By saying, as he does, that someone acts with “a certain sense of responsibility” in seeking to avoid infection, the Pope does not claim that using condoms to prevent HIV-infection means to act responsibly. Real responsibility, for prostitutes, would mean abstaining completely from risky and immoral sexual contacts and to completely change their life style. If they do not (because they cannot, or will not), they act at least subjectively in a responsible way by seeking to prevent infection, or at least act less irresponsibly than those who do not, which is a rather different proposition.
This is a statement of common sense, expressed in personalistic terms; it is not a positive moral norm permitting a “lesser evil”. The Church must always advise people to do the good, not the lesser evil; and the good thing to do – and therefore to advise – is not to act immorally and simultaneously to reduce this immorality by minimizing the possible damage caused by it, but to abstain from immoral behavior altogether. This is why a justification of the prophylactic use of condoms as “lesser evil” is mistaken – and also dangerous, because it opens the way to justify any kind of “lesser evil” moral choice: doing evil that good may come. It is also misplaced. Condoms "per se," considered as “things,” are not “evil”; in Church teaching, their use in the contraceptive acts as defined by "Humanae vitae" is evil, but as we have established, this encyclical does not apply to prophylaxis.
What Pope Benedict’s remarks did not deal with was the case of a married couple in which one of the spouses is infected, in which a condom is used to protect the other from infection. In my 2004 article I rather incidentally referred to such cases, talking about “pastoral or simply prudential reasons” which would advise against using condoms in these circumstances. This case is different from the preceding one, and more complex, because here what properly constitutes a marital act is at stake. It is important to emphasize that the question of contraception in marriage and of preventing infection by using condoms are referring to two different moral problems.
The question will no doubt continue to be debated; but whatever the Church eventually declares on this issue, there will always be good reasons for pastors to urge abstinence in this situation, because using a condom exclusively for medical purposes is in reality theoretical. It is likely that – at least for fertile couples – the intention of preventing infection will fuse with the properly contraceptive intent of preventing the conception of an infected baby. Personally I would never encourage a couple to use a condom, but to abstain. If they disagreed, I would not think their intercourse to be what moral theologians call a sin “against nature” equal to masturbation or sodomy, as some moral theologians claim. But complete abstinence would be the morally better choice, not only for prudential reasons (condoms are not completely safe even when used consistently and properly), but because it better corresponds to moral perfection – to a virtuous life – to abstain completely from dangerous acts, than to prevent their danger by using a device that helps to circumvent the need for sacrifice.
Defending the Church’s teaching and her approach to preventing the transmission of HIV should not require invoking self-defeating and nonsensical arguments which distort Church's teaching. By urging abstinence, fidelity and monogamy as the true solutions to stop the AIDS epidemic, we do not need to deny that the use of condoms by high-risk groups causes infection rates to decrease, while containing the spread of the epidemic into other parts of the population. But this task is mainly the responsibility of civil authorities.
The Church’s role in the struggle against AIDS is not that of the fireman trying to contain the conflagration, but that of teaching and helping people to build fireproof houses and to avoid doing what may cause a blaze, while of course treating those with burns. She does so, most importantly, to offer reconciliation with God and healing of the souls of those who have been hurt in their human dignity by their own immoral behavior or the terrible choices and circumstances imposed by AIDS.