When Benedict XVI was en route to his first African pilgrimage as pope last March, he answered a journalist's question on condoms and AIDS prevention with a response that would overshadow the rest of his trip and reinforce common misconceptions about Catholic teaching on condoms.
"One cannot overcome the problem with the distribution of condoms," Benedict said in one line of a longer answer as to whether the church's approach to fighting AIDS was "unrealistic and ineffective." He continued: "On the contrary, they increase the problem."
The pope's remarks touched off furious commentary, much of which blasted the pontiff for -- the critics assumed -- putting the church's teaching against contraception over the lives of Africans, especially sex workers and spouses of infected husbands or wives. Benedict's answer was certainly not articulated well, and the Vatican did not help his cause when Roman officials were found to have massaged the official translation of the remarks to make them seem less black-and-white. Nor did most critics read the pope's entire answer for context (see it
in a very good Catholic News Service analysis), or consider studies showing that indiscriminate reliance on condom distribution may in fact not help at all.
Most important -- and contrary to the widespread impression fostered by last year's episode -- Catholic teaching in fact does
bar the use of condoms to protect people from contracting the HIV virus that causes AIDS, and the Vatican has never issued a formal pronouncement on the matter other than to stress that abstinence is always the best means of prevention, even if it that is impractical in many cases.
If that teaching is not widely understood, however, the pope now seems content to leave things as they are rather than risk the appearance of seeming to promote condom use and contraceptives in general.
Vatican officials earlier this month announced that a study of the question of condom use to prevent disease, undertaken several years ago at the behest of Benedict, has been shelved.
"There was a project, there was, but nothing serious was delivered," Bishop Jose Luis Redrado Marchite, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, said at a Vatican press conference on February 5.
The former head of the health care council, Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, told reporters in November 2006 that his staff had prepared a 200 page study on the question that included "an enormous rainbow" of theological and moral positions, ranging from "very rigorous" to others that were "very understanding," as The Tablet
of London reported. Lozano's remarks generated expectations that the study might result in a Vatican affirmation that married couples where one spouse is HIV positive would have church approval to use condoms to protect the uninfected spouse -- a position that Lozano and numerous other church leaders have endorsed.
But at the February news conference, Bishop Redrado said it was decided to let the question stand.
Whether that is a good decision or not has now become the focus of the debate, however.
At the blog of the Jesuit weekly America, a leading Catholic journalist in England, Austen Ivereigh, ripped
the Vatican's non-decision as camouflaging a plain church teaching that "if the intention is not to avoid life but to prevent death, then [using condoms] is not contraception." He also noted the fact -- one I have often observed as well -- that if you talk to almost anyone in the church, from Vatican hierarchs to church workers in parishes and health clinics across the globe, they understand that using condoms to prevent AIDS is perfectly legitimate.
"I know this is true," Ivereigh wrote, "because in 2008, while in Rome, I asked a high-ranking [Vatican] official (it was a private conversation, so I won't give his name) why nothing had happened with the theological report. 'Everyone knows that theologically there is a strong case for clarifying that teaching,' he told me, 'but there's just no way of doing it publicly without it being misunderstood.' Do you mean, I said, that the Vatican feared the headlines that would result? 'Exactly,' he said. 'It would be confusing for the faithful.' But don't you think, I pressed him, that if something is doctrinally true, that was more important than whether it was likely to be misunderstood? 'But there's just no way,' he repeated."
For Ivereigh that just isn't good enough:
"By choosing not to say anything -- and by burying the report -- the Church remains vulnerable to the accusation that its teaching on this point is inhumane and irrational. But even worse is the deliberate suppression of theological truth for fear of being misunderstood. It is mundane. It is cowardly. It is not worthy of a teaching authority which proclaims that the truth sets us free."
At the blog
of Commonweal magazine, another leading Catholic publication, Lisa Fullam, a professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley and an expert in sexual ethics, also argued that the Vatican should say something "even at the risk that their teaching would be misconstrued."
"First, it would actually clarify the Church's teaching, in which, in this case, no substantive change is proposed. Using condoms to limit the spread of HIV is not properly construed as a contraceptive act -- the end in mind is to preserve the health of one's partner -- contraception is, as it were, a side-effect. Similarly, a woman who has medical cause to have a hysterectomy is having a medically-indicated hysterectomy. She's also permanently sterilized, but that was, again, a side-effect. Church teaching, [and] if nothing else the tried-and-true double effect, supports both the use of condoms to protect oneself from deadly infection by one's sexual partner and other medically-indicated interventions that happen also to interfere with fertility."
The principle of the "double-effect" was elaborated most notably by the medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, who explained that an action would be permissible -- such as killing someone out of self-defense -- as long as the person principally intends a good effect (saving a life) rather than a bad effect (killing someone) and as long as the good effect outweighs the bad effects and minimizes harm.
On the other hand, moral theology aside, there is also the principle of "less is more," a precept that can be especially useful when it comes to Vatican politics.
That's because if pressed to say something definitive about condoms and HIV there is reason to believe the pope, who is always wary of the slippery slope of moral complexity, would choose a blanket condemnation of all condom use in order to avoid any "confusion." By leaving things as they stand, the teaching remains as it always has -- thus allowing for condom use in many instances, and allowing church workers "in the trenches" of the AIDS battle to continue doing what they've been doing.
This could be seen as the more pastoral, personal approach favored in a 2007 interview with Cardinal Peter Turkson, Archbishop of Ghana and a leading African churchman, who said the best way to advise married couples on whether they should use condoms is to help the couple to make their own decision.
"For me, I always recognize that this ultimately is a counseling situation," Turkson said, clearly distancing himself from conservative voices that would see all condom use as a sin to be banned. "In a counseling situation one does not decide for the client. You just help the client to take the decision which [he or she] will be at peace with."
"I will never stand up in the pulpit and say, 'Because of HIV/Aids you can resort to condom use between you and your wife'," Turkson added. "I will only speak in person-to-person counseling, allowing those who can, to choose for love of their partner to abstain, and those who also for love of their partner may want to use this way."
Last October, Pope Benedict named Turkson
to head the Vatican's Council on Justice and Peace, essentially the church's department on human rights and related issues, which may be as strong a sign as any of where the Vatican's views on condom use are heading.