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Ecclesiam Suam (Paths of the Church)


Sex and the fifth commandment

November 20, 2010

Update 9:59 a.m.: The Vatican has clarified that the pope's statement on condoms and AIDS does not just apply to male prostitutes but also to women and anyone infected with HIV/AIDS. The pope said "It's the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship," according to the Vatican spokesman. "This is if you're a woman, a man, or a transsexual. We're at the same point."
Original Post: For decades, the Vatican has had nothing good to say about condoms, but now the pope in a new book has acknowledged that in some circumstances the use of condoms can be morally responsible to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. What is going on here?

In the past, the Vatican has been so critical of condoms that it has led some Catholics to think that condoms are somehow intrinsically evil--that there is no conceivable situation where they could be used morally. The pope's new statement blasts that idea out of the water.

The pope writes that using a condom can represent a first step in assuming moral responsibility "in the intention of reducing the risk of infection."

Although the only example he gives is a male prostitute, he does not say that this is the only possible case. There is no reason to exclude female prostitutes or anyone infected with HIV/AIDS for whom the use of a condom to diminish the danger of infection may be "a first assumption of responsibility," as opposed to not using the condom and exposing the other person to a fatal risk.

Is the pope saying that the solution to the HIV/AIDS epidemic is to flood Africa and the rest of the world with condoms? Definitely not. He is still highly critical of a "condom only" approach to preventing HIV/AIDS, which he argues encourages promiscuity and is ineffective. It is ineffective because condoms can fail and because most people do not use condoms 100% of the time, which is necessary to be safe.

As the Vatican spokesman notes: "The pope observes that even in non-church circles a comparable awareness has developed, as is seen in the so-called ABC theory (Abstinence-Be Faithful-Condoms), in which the first two elements (abstinence and fidelity) are much more decisive and fundamental in the struggle against AIDS, while the condom appears as a last resort when the other two are lacking."

Does this mean that the Catholic Church can now support ABC programs in Africa as long as condoms are presented as a last resort? Let's hope so.

In 1987, the administrative committee of the US Catholic bishops' conference argued that limiting sex to marriage was the moral and most effective way to stem the spread of AIDS. But they went on to "acknowledge that some will not agree with our understanding of human sexuality." As a result, in "The Many Faces of Aids" they said that public education "could include accurate information about prophylactic devices or other practices proposed by some medical experts as potential means of preventing AIDS."

"The Many Faces of Aids" was criticized by conservative bishops and Vatican officials. Sadly, it has taken the Vatican 23 years to realize how well the U.S. bishops were presenting traditional Catholic teaching in a new context.

Part of the problem for the Vatican has always been its fear that any nuanced discussion of condoms and AIDS would be poorly covered by the media. When the Washington Post ran a story on "The Many Faces of Aids," the headline read "Bishops endorse condoms." The headline was retracted in later editions at the insistence of the reporter who wrote the story and complained it was misleading.

The church needs to express itself more clearly and simply on the issue of condoms and AIDS. When it comes to HIV/AIDS, condoms are not about preventing pregnancies, they are about preventing deaths. Sex outside of marriage may be a sin against the Sixth Commandment, but as Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels put it well in 2004: For a person with AIDS not to use a condom when having sex is be a sin against the Fifth Commandment--Thou shalt not kill.