Saturday, 27 November 2010

AIDS, Condoms, and What the Pope Really Said

AIDS, Prophylactics, and What the Pope Really Said, by Fr Dylan James, Moral Theologian, Wonersh Seminary

A document file version of this is avaialble at this link:

Last weekend saw many inaccurate media reports claiming that the Pope said that condoms were sometimes permissible in the fight against AIDS. This is not what he said. Below I have briefly quoted him and explained his comments in the light of his previous comments. If we want to understand him we need to read him in the context of other things he has said and in the context of the standard Catholic moral theology he is articulating.

(1) The Pope said that condoms are not “a real or moral solution”[1] to the fight against AIDS:

(a) Condoms are not a “real” solution because they are not effective at a simple practical level

While condom use can reduce the risk of infection it does not prevent it. As Durex themselves warn: 'No method of contraception can give you 100% protection against pregnancy, HIV or sexually transmitted infections.' As a consequence programs that distribute condoms may slow the spread of AIDS in a population but do not prevent the spread of the disease.
AIDS campaigns that promote the use of condoms frequently mislead people into thinking they can ‘safely’ engage in promiscuous sexual lifestyles when in fact they are exposing themselves to risk. In addition, such campaigns encourage sexual promiscuity among the youth at a younger and younger age and thus hasten rather than slow the spread of a great many sexually transmitted diseases. For example, 1 in 10 young people in Dorset are affected by Chlamydia.[2]
Telling people that they can safely engage in promiscuous sex is a lie. Promiscuous sex, with or without a condom, is not ‘safe’ even though a condom reduces the risk.

(b) The Church has a real solution it offers: abstinence and faithfulness

Any ‘real’ solution is not going to be easy and what the Church notes is the only effective way to avoid infection involves discipline and self-restraint –something that the modern world avoids. The only way to safely avoid sexually transmitted diseases is to abstain from sex if you are single and be faithful to your spouse if you are married. Thus the Pope said in his 2009 trip to Africa: "The traditional teaching of the church has proven to be the only failsafe way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS."[3]
Those countries in Africa that have promoted abstinence programs instead of condom programs have statistics that show their success.[4] “Recognition of the value of promoting abstinence, instead of just relying on condoms, came in a commentary published in The Lancet Nov 27 [2004]. Written by a group of medical experts, and endorsed by a long list of health care experts, the article noted that when campaigns target young people who have not initiated sexual activity, ‘the first priority should be to encourage abstinence or delay of sexual onset, hence emphasizing risk avoidance as the best way to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.’”[5]

(c) The Church does a lot of work caring for AIDS sufferers

Did you know that 25% of AIDS care worldwide is provided by Catholic organisations?
As the Pope said in his recent interview: “Someone had asked me why the Catholic Church adopts an unrealistic and ineffective position on AIDS. At that point, I really felt that I was being provoked, because the Church does more than anyone else. And I stand by that claim because she is the only institution that assists people up close and concretely, with prevention, education, help, counsel, and accompaniment. And because she is second to none in treating so many AIDS victims, especially children with Aids.
“I had the chance to visit one of these wards and to speak with the patients. That was the real answer: The Church does more than anyone else, because she does not speak from the tribunal of the newspapers, but helps her brothers and sisters where they are actually suffering. In my remarks I was not making a general statement about the condom issue, but merely said, and this is what caused such great offense, that we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms. Much more needs to be done. We must stand close to the people, we must guide and help them; and we must do this both before and after they contract the disease.”[6]

(2) What then did the Pope say about condoms that was mistakenly claimed to be ‘new’?
The Pope spoke about what can sometimes be a “first step” towards moral living, even when this first step is something that is nonetheless still sinful. He said “perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.”[7]
When the Pope was asked in response, “Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?” It was then that the Pope said, “She [i.e. the Church] of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution” but only a possible “first step” towards a moral life.
In noting that the “first step” towards morality is often something that is still sinful the Pope is articulating standard Catholic moral theology. In commenting on the Pope’s words the moral theologian Professor Janet Smith used the example of theft to illustrate what the Pope is saying: “If someone was going to rob a bank and was determined to use a gun, it would better for that person to use a gun that had no bullets in it. It would reduce the likelihood of fatal injuries. But it is not the task of the Church to instruct potential bank robbers how to rob banks more safely and certainly not the task of the Church to support programs of providing potential bank robbers with guns that could not use bullets. Nonetheless, the intent of a bank robber to rob a bank in a way that is safer for the employees and customers of the bank may indicate an element of moral responsibility that could be a step towards eventual understanding of the immorality of bank robbing.”[8]

(3) Why then has the media misinterpreted the Pope’s words?
Different reports have said very different things and have no doubt done so for very different reasons. Some seem to have imagined that the Pope said what they wished he had said rather than what he actually said. Others have misinterpreted the Pope because they are unfamiliar with his other writings and unfamiliar with Catholic moral theology.
Regardless, nothing the Pope said is new and nothing he said changes the fact that, as he said, condoms are not “a real or moral solution”[9] to the fight against AIDS.

[1] accessed 26/11/2010
[2] accessed 23/11/2010
[3] accessed 23/11/2010 . To see some other secular reports backing the science of what the Pope has said about abstinence and faithfulness being the only effective way to prevent the spread of AIDS, follow links at: accessed 23/11/2010
[4], among many other reports on this point see: accessed 26/11/2010
[5] accessed 23/11/2010
[6] accessed 26/11/2010
[7] Ibid
[8] accessed 23/11/2010
[9] accessed 26/11/2010

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