Politics & Policy

Idle Speculation

AIDS, condoms, and the Catholic Church.

The media blitz was triggered by comments from two high-ranking prelates. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the retired archbishop of Milan and a known biblical scholar, gave an interview to the Italian weekly L’Espresso in which he suggested that condom use by married couples could be a “lesser evil” when one of the spouses is infected by AIDS.

Martini’s April 21 statement was immediately followed by an April 23 interview with Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, head of the Vatican office for healthcare, in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, where he announced that Pope Benedict had commissioned his office to study the question of condom use by those with AIDS and other infectious diseases.

As was to be expected, these comments unleashed a new avalanche of speculation concerning the Church’s position on condoms, with headlines generally suggesting that the Vatican may soon be lifting or relaxing its “ban on condoms.” For the sake of clarity, a few principles should be restated.

First, the present debate has little or nothing to do with contraception itself. The Church is not re-examining its position on birth control “in certain cases,” so nothing like a relaxation of Catholic opposition to contraception is in the cards. In the case of AIDS prevention, the contraceptive side-effect of condom use would be an unintended consequence, not the purpose of the action. Something similar happens when women are prescribed the birth-control pill for medical reasons, and this results in the unintended prevention of conception as well (though in the case of the morning-after pill, there’s a possible abortfacient effect to be considered as well).

Second, the central moral issue at stake in the use of condoms as a means of HIV-prevention within marriage revolves around the question of whether or not condom use substantially changes the nature of the marital act itself. Since with a condom the husband no longer deposits his sperm within the woman’s body but in a latex sack, many moral theologians believe that such an act no longer constitutes conjugal relations, but more closely resembles essentially infertile sexual acts such as anal or oral sex.

Third, current debates only concern the use of the condom by married couples. The Catholic Church has no official teaching on the use of condoms outside of marriage, where the sexual act is already vitiated. It is clear, for example, that the use of a condom in the case of homosexual relation adds no further moral evil to the act. Similarly, many moral theologians argue that condom use in the case of prostitution or casual sex adds no moral evil to an already disordered act.

One thing is abundantly clear: the Church will never “promote” condom use as the remedy to the AIDS problem in Africa. The reason for this policy is twofold. First, promotion of condoms inevitably means the sanctioning of promiscuity, and consequently, the increasing of AIDS itself. Second, existing data suggests that condom promotion simply doesn’t work, while abstinence programs have more of a shot. As much as we may wish to shout about “safe sex,” condom distribution first and foremost sends a message about sex itself: it is perfectly fine to be promiscuous. And only as a side note: oh, and be safe.

I have spoken to a number of Africans who find the Western supposition that “they’re going to do it anyway” to be insulting and, frankly, racist. Prejudice against Africans as primitive peoples with no self-discipline or control over the sex drive simmers just beneath the surface of much anti-abstinence propaganda. Behind the cries for “realism” stands the unspoken assumption that Africans are naturally and incorrigibly promiscuous.

This supposition, however, besides its thinly veiled racism, flies in the face of statistics. If we truly want to be “realistic” and objective, we should look to Uganda, the only African nation that has substantially curbed the rate of AIDS infection. Through an intense abstinence-based campaign, Uganda managed to reduce the infection rate from 29 percent to 4 percent in just ten years. As South African Cardinal Wilfred Napier put it, the unified message in Uganda, beginning with the president, was “Change your behaviour … change your behaviour.”

Compare Uganda’s success with the dismal failure of the two most condom-flooded African nations, Botswana and South Africa. South Africa has been inundated with condoms and its rate of AIDS infection continues to soar at 22 percent of the entire population. Botswana’s situation is even worse, with 37 percent of the adult population infected by AIDS. Professor Norman Hearst, of the University of California at San Francisco, notes that in Botswana condom sales rose from one million in 1993 to 3 million in 2001, while HIV infection among urban pregnant women rose from 27 percent to 45 percent. In Cameroon, as well, condom sales rose from 6 million to 15 million, while HIV prevalence rose from 3 percent to 9 percent.

Moreover, despite critics’ accusations that Catholic moral teaching is the cause of Africa’s woes, the facts demonstrate the contrary. The World Health Organization puts the figure for HIV infection in Swaziland at 42.6 percent of the population, where only 5 percent of the population is Catholic. Similarly, in Botswana, where 37 percent of the adult population is HIV infected, only 4 percent of the population is Catholic. Compare this to Uganda, where 43 percent of the population is Catholic, and the number of HIV-infected adults has dropped to only 4 percent.

For those who wish to pay more than lip service to the problem of HIV-AIDS in Africa, the Catholic Church’s considered position merits more than cavalier dismissal.

— Father Thomas D. Williams, LC, is a moral theologian and dean of the theology school at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum University, and also serves as Vatican Analyst for NBC News and MSNBC.

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