In HIV context it is lawful to use condoms?
Where justification for condom use is required, it can be found by drawing on centuries-old Catholic moral principles, writes Fr Michael Kelly.
Last October 22nd, The Irish Times carried an article by Fiona O'Malley
entitled "Church message on condoms irresponsible". The article gave good
information on some of the ravages of HIV/AIDS and the work of the Catholic
Church in mitigating the horrendous impacts of the epidemic in many parts of
the world. But it did not present a balanced picture of the church's stance
on HIV prevention in general and on condom use in particular.
It cannot be stressed too strongly that concern that HIV transmissions be
prevented has always been a hallmark of the church response. Together with
those from other faiths and religions, the Catholic Church has been
remarkable for the consistency and force of its messages propounding
abstinence and mutual fidelity within marriage.
Although many agencies and programmes tend to downplay these approaches as placing unrealistic ideals before the majority of men and women, the fact that even in the countries most severely affected by HIV, three-quarters and more of the people are not infected, implies the possibility that a very large percentage do abstain from risky sexual activity and/or live in mutual fidelity in the safe union of a marriage where neither partner is infected with HIV.
However, none of this denies that the message of condom use is important in
general HIV prevention approaches. It is not the only message, neither is it
the most important message. Nevertheless, it is a message that can make a
significant contribution to reducing the likelihood of HIV transmission.
To the extent that it does this, condom use is an integral part of the
effort to overcome HIV/AIDS. Hence the use of condoms should be advocated or, at the very least, should not be opposed.
Is this in conflict with Catholic teaching? To use the sub-heading for Fiona
O'Malley's article, how does this square with the church's "immoral" refusal
to contemplate the advocacy of condoms as a response to AIDS?
The answer will undoubtedly come as a surprise to many readers. There is no Roman Catholic teaching on condoms. As Father Maurizio Faggioni, a
Franciscan priest and moral theologian who is consultor to the Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith, said in a recent interview: "We've never published a document on this. Some individuals have made remarks, but that
is not the same as an official position."
Perhaps what we need are clear statements on condoms, Catholics and HIV
prevention. In an article in the Furrow magazine in September 2001, two
Jesuit priests, Jon Fuller and James Keenan, provided statements that have
never been bettered. It will help to summarise the gist of them here.
The church's teaching in the encyclical Humanae Vitae is that contraception
is wrong, and hence it is wrong to use a condom with the intention of
preventing conception. However, Humanae Vitae has nothing to say about using a condom to prevent the transmission of diseases, especially one such as HIV that could be life-threatening.
Second, the protection and preservation of life is the basic Christian
ethic. This has always come out strongly in arguments against terminating
the life of an unborn child. But it is equally valid in relation to HIV/AIDS.
There is a primary responsibility to prevent the transmission of death or of
a life-threatening disease - and in sexual relations, both in and outside of
marriage, proper use of a good condom can help ensure this.
Third, where justification for condom use is required it can be found by
drawing on centuries-old Catholic moral principles. Basically, there are two
of these - the principle of double effect and that of the lesser evil.
The principle of double effect allows that it morally lawful for a surgeon
to excise a pregnancy that is developing outside the womb. The action has
the good effect of saving the life of a mother with an abnormal condition,
but it also has the secondary effect of terminating the life of the foetus
she was carrying.
Similarly, it is morally lawful for a married couple to use condoms where
one or both of them have HIV. The principle of the lesser evil applies to
the situation outside marriage.
In the case of high-risk sexual activity there is still the ethically wrong
use of sex, but without condoms the action would add the further ethically
wrong dimension of putting oneself or another person at risk of HIV
Finally, the proper application of these and similar traditional Catholic
principles legitimises Catholic agencies and institutions in providing
information about condom use.
As Fuller and Keenan point out, the question is not really about the
morality of the activity, but whether it is prudentially right or wrong to
promote condom distribution in a particular setting and at a particular
time. There is no reason therefore to condemn Trocaire for funding
organisations which, among other activities, provide condoms.
To say that the condom is morally wrong conflicts with Catholic moral
principles and is not supported by any explicit church teaching. To this
extent, what is irresponsible is to promote a fundamentalist view of the
church's position on condoms.
M. J. Kelly SJ is a professor at the department of educational
administration and policy studies in the University of Zambia.