A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Cardinal Martini on condoms & AIDS

Rocco Palmo points out this BBC story, which reports that Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, one-time papabile, told L'Espresso that "in couples where one had HIV/AIDS, which could pass to the partner, the use of condoms was 'a lesser evil.'"

For more on the subject, see the cover story in the most recent Commonweal, "The Church & AIDS in Africa," by Marcella Alsan, MD. A snippet:

This is the reality: a married woman living in Southern Africa is athigher risk of becoming infected with HIV than an unmarried woman.Extolling abstinence and fidelity, as the Catholic Church does, willnot protect her; in all likelihood she is already monogamous. It is herhusband who is likely to have HIV. Yet refusing a husbands sexualovertures risks ostracism, violence, and destitution for herself andher children. Given these realities, isnt opposing the use of condomstantamount to condemning countless women to death? In the midst of theAIDS epidemic, which has already killed tens of millions and preysdisproportionately on the poor, the condom acts as a contra mortem andits use is justified by the Catholic consistent ethic of life.

Now go read the whole thing.

About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Is the use of condoms, like the enslavement of human beings, intrinsically evil? If it is, then Marcella Alsan's plea ought to fall on deaf ears, and the view ascribed to Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini is mistaken, and It is idle to appeal to the "culture of life". But if it is not intrinsically evil, but only evil in certain circumstances, than it certainly seems justifiable to use condoms when they would save lives by providing a remedy against a surely fatal disease. But is it not also probable that, if some methods of contraception are not intrinsically evil, it would be justifiable to use them in another circumstance, viz., as part of a responsible attempt by a married couple to carry out a positive program of spacing births and limiting their number for good reasons?

Two points: ARTIFICIAL contraception is intrinisically evil. The Magisterium has always ruled that, no matter what some rogue cardinals, bishops, priests, religious, or laymen may say. Adding evil to evil doesn't solve the problem.More importantly, Mr. Alsan seems to think that a woman's refusal of intercourse to her promiscuous sleaze of a husband will result in violence, but that her insistance that he wear a condom WON'T? Besides the ridiculous nature of this statement, it seems to me that Alsan's promotion of condoms in these cases is tantamount to sanctioning rape. What else would you call it to say, "Give 'im what he wants since he's gonna beat you up if you don't. Just make sure he wears this material (with naturally occurring holes 100 microns in size to stop a 1 micron virus)."

to Jared Weber: I suggest that you read the whole of MS./DR. (not Mr.) Alsan's article to get a better understanding of her argument in favor on condom use for people who are HIV positive. Also, please bear in mind that different cultures have different attitudes toward women, and in many places worldwide women are hardly more then chattel, if not less. They do not have the right to voice opposition to their husbands or even with their families. No, I don't believe that condom use alone will save the women of the world, even if it were an accepted practice, nor would it bring the AIDS epidemic rapidly under control, but it would be a step in the right direction. A very much needed step to save lives and prevent further infection.

t. aleman:I suggest that you do some research and look at the success of the Ugandan abstinence policy.Here's a link to get you started: line: condom advocacy hasn't worked. The only thing that works and the only morally defensible program is one that alters behavior.One more thing: the Church stands for UNIVERSAL truth. What is true for the developed nations is true for the undeveloped ones. That's why we're called the Catholic Church. Simply because women are treated like chattel in the nations in question is no reason to validate that position by advocating the course you suggest. It is both an immoral and an ineffectual program and does speak to the dignity of persons.

Don't bother arguing with him, T. Aleman. He obviously didn't read the article. Or if he did, he has no appreciation for the concept of mitigating factors. What a delight it must be to live in that black and white world. What he's argued is nothing but tautology.

Ron: Spoken like a true soldier of tolerance. But what about MY needs???Holiness calls us beyond "mitigating factors."...No wonder Benedict XVI speaks of the dictatorship of relativism.

Here you go, Jared. Mentioned on Amy Welborn's site:

Grant:Remember when the media said that the "Vatican" approved of Harry Potter? Turned out to be ONE GUY who made an off-handed remark.You should know as well as I that one cardinal's opinion does not Cannon Law make."Upon further review, the play still stands."

Well Jared, if you looked a little deeper say at this weeks posting of "Word From Rome" by NCR's John Allen you would discover that quite a few Cardinals have come out in favour of condums.Here is what he reports:"In upholding the moral tolerability of condoms as a "lesser evil" in the context of HIV/AIDS, Martini joins Cardinal George Cottier, theologian of the Papal Household under John Paul II; Cardinal Godfriend Danneels of Belgium; Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, President of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Health; Cardinal Cormac Muphy-O'Connor of Westminster, England; and Bishop Kevin Dowling of South Africa.In 2004, the Indian bishops launched an awareness campaign about HIV/AIDS that includes information on condoms, and in 2005, a spokesperson for the Spanish bishops said that condoms might be justified in some circumstances to combat the disease.Msgr. Angel Rodriguez Luo, an Opus Dei priest, a professor at Santa Croce University in Rome, and a consultor for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has said there's actually not much debate over the theology; most moralists, he said, believe the argument for condoms as a lesser evil is fairly clear. The question is how to explain that conclusion in a way that doesn't seem to offer a free pass for irresponsible sexual behavior."

John, et al:I keep hearing this term "lesser evil." Since when has the True Church EVER been in favor of teaching and advocating ANY evil. It makes absolutely no sense.It doesn't matter. You won't listen since you've set your wills against the will of the Father and the ancient teachings of the Church. You do what you want but I know that you'll be surprised when the Church upholds the same moral teaching she's ALWAYS taught. She will not be moved.Not included in the article whose link was posted by Grant was the statement that Martini also doesn't believe in the Church's teaching that life must be defended from conception forward. The man has been on a tear lately because, ever since he didn't achieve his ambition to be elected pope, he knows his days are numbered. Doesn't matter. He's a loose cannon going up against authentic Church teaching and objective Truth.

For the most thoughtful analysis I have read yet on this issue, may I point you all to the comments of a colleague of mine at the HMS Blog. He is a professor of moral theology at a well-known Catholic college. I think his response is very balanced and looks at all possible outcomes.

Some thoughts:-Many of my African priest friends (lots of my former classmates) certainly look upon women differently than most Americans do. Some are surprised when they speak up in class, challenge a man's thought, or even disagree with the professor. While they adjust rather quickly to our norms for the most part and begin to treat women as equals not all of them take to this quickly or at all. Some won't even sign up for a class with a woman professor.As Jared points out, this doesn't make a culutral norm correct, obviously, but it also doesn't mean that the Magical Morality Fairy is going to drop into Nigeria and change the minds of millions of African men in one fell swoop either.Obviously, the course that is needed is balance. Abstinence plans work when they are followed but condom use in conjunction with abstinence plans could virtually eliminate the further spread of the disease from the continent. Prudence needs to win out over hard-headedness.Greg, thanks for Kevin's post which I found insightful on several counts. Like voting for a candidate who happens to be pro-choice but doing so for other reasons, condom use to prevent AIDS or other diseases instead of preventing procreation might indeed be licit from the church's perspective. Full intent is needed for a sin to be mortal and we tend to forget that..

I also wonder if those who quickly judge and shoot their mouths off about this subject have ever visited a third world country (not mentioning any names (cough, jared, cough cough))?As a frequent visitor to Nicaragua, I find the problem is poverty, not abstinence, in third world countries.Poor people may have nothing in terms of monitary value but they do have one another. Sex is one of the few "pleasures" that anyone can have access to as long as they have a willing partner. At the garbage dump we visited in Managua, where people live, we found condoms littered all along the side of the road but we also found that nearly every woman we saw was pregnant. People were dying of Aids and other diseases. Men paid prostitutes to have sex without condoms and they readily agree so they can afford to feed their families.I shudder to think what life in Africa is like. I'm sure it makes Nicaragua look like the Ritz carlton. Abject poverty is always going to trump sexual immorality. In many ways it causes it and yet, we Americans can blindly stand by and let it happen.The great Protestant minister Rev. William Sloane Coffin, noted some time ago that when we ask God, "How could you let this happen?" He in turn will offer us the same question: "How could YOU let this happen?" Poverty is something we all could do something about...and yet we sit here talking about condoms.

Jared's comment about condoms, "with naturally occurring holes 100 microns in size to stop a 1 micron virus," brings up something about the whole AIDS/condoms issue that Dr. Alsan doesn't cover in her article.What I'd be interested to know is how Catholic-run clinics and missions address the AIDS/condoms issue with the people who seek help from them.Do these clinics and missions simply explain that they don't promote condom use on religious grounds?Or do these clinics and missions distort the effectiveness of condoms as a preventive method in order to, effectively, "trick" people into doing what the Church teaches?I bring this up because I've seen some misleading medical advice that comes from Catholic sources right here in my diocese.For instance, our diocesan paper ran a story about "post-tubal-ligation disease," which turns out to be plain old scar tissue--a problem that can occur with any surgery. It's not a disease waiting to happen specifically to women who've had tubal ligations, but that's what the article implies.The same article that warned of "post-tubal-ligation disease" also said the Church led the way in warning women about the ills of oral contraceptives. The "ills" it warned about were spiritual, but the article made it sound as if the Church had purposely developed its teaching against the Pill in order to prevent health risks that were actually discovered many decades later through medical research.Couples I've heard speak on behalf of NFP invariably say that NFP has improved their sex lives because of the anticipation that builds up by having to wait (details I could truly live having heard).And while this is real nice for those couples, making your sex life better isn't the point of NFP.Helping people understand the Church's theological reasons for its teaching on condoms and birth control seems like a fine thing to me. And I don't think that the Church needs to change its teaching in order to help people with HIV. In promoting abstinence and chastity within marriage, the Church IS promoting the only way to truly prevent the spread of AIDS.But if some Catholics are getting tricky with the truth by telling people that condoms are useless in order to push people toward certain decisions, aren't they subverting the whole notion of free will?

Jean,You ask an interesting question, but I'm not sure what your point is. Are you suggesting that it is it somehow inappropriate for the Church--or those responsible for evangelization--to note that aside from specific moral prohibitions there are other reasons for avoiding or embracing a practice? It seems to me that this is only problematic if somehow the central moral truth is denied. If NFP is morally licit and it can benefit your sex life, why not say it? If tubal ligation is being sold as a "safe and easy" procedure that has a dark side that the medical community won't readily admit, why not speak about " post-tubal-ligation disease. After all, post-surgical scarring that causes clinical impairment isn't exactly a healthy outcome. And whatever side one falls on the HIV/condom issue, the reality is that while they are a useful public health measure, they are not 100% effective for individual prevention. That is information that is not openly shared by the latex lobby. If you want to fret about truth in advertising, then let's look at this whole notion of "safe sex" shall we?The Church has always recognized that people don't always do the right thing for the best reason. But motivating someone to do the right thing for a less-than-ideal reason--as long as the ideal reason is also communicated--can't possibly be problematic.Unless I'm misreading your post, I'm not sure why would implying a problem here.

Mr. Popcak,Do you remember a little TV series from the mid-eighties based in the not too distant future called Max Headroom. America is rapidly becoming that future and unfortunately you and those who have a like view of the Church as you propose in your posts live in that hyper-capitalistic wealthy intellectual law and order dominated side of society verses the "outside society" forced to scrounge in the choas and anarchy of the street.I would like to suggest, that you go live on the same streets for a while, that I know Jean Raber has explored and then come back and see if you can still write as condenscening a reply as you have just posted to her.John Borst

Mr. Borst,If you insist on formality, then that would be "Dr. Popcak" to you. And y-y-y-y-yess, I r-r-r-rememb-b-b-ber Maaaaaax Headroom. Now, other than reminiscing about mediocre 80's media, what's your point?As to the discernable substance of your comment (what little there was) I was honestly not intending to be condescending to Jean. I'm genuinely sorry if it seemed that way at all, because I intended my post to be an honest question. She raised a question. I responded and asked for clarification. If she's half the person you seem to think she is, I suggest you let her fight her own battles. But since you're so worried about fighting nicely, I'll thank you to keep your rage-filled, two-dimensional projections between you and your therapist. You don't know me. You don't know where I come from and what I stand for, and you sure as hell have no idea what I have been through in my life. If you have something to say about my ideas, say it. I'm a big boy, and I actually am interested in an intelligent response that challenges my thinking. That's why I stop in here, and that's why I'm so disappointed in your meanspirited, hostile, and uncharitable response. In the future, you may say what you like about me. Barring an apology, I will no longer dignify any of your comments with a response.Greg

Couple of quick points, in random order (or maybe I'm just shooting my mouth off again):1. No, I've never had the luxury of travel outside the country. My parents, who actually lived their Catholic faith, had ten children and were unable to do any travelling. To this day, I don't even have a passport.2. That said, it is not necessary to have burned one's hand to know that the stove is hot. In the same vein, it is not necessary that I have visited the places in question to have an idea of the situation at hand. The human experience is universal; that is why the human race can have a single, universal, Catholic Faith for salvation. Morality is the same everywhere.In fact, I learned a lot about this FROM a Nigerian priest, to whom I confessed during a very dark part of my life. The man taught me that those who don't truly know true morality do not know themselves. Additionally, I have learned a lot from people all over the world. One of my favorite local priests right now is from Viet Nam. I had a martial arts coach from Mongolia. And on and on. And they all believed in universal truths that are the same for all. The point is, even without having made these acquaintances, I could've known that truth was universal. Some of the greatest minds (and no, before you accuse me, I'm not equating myself with them, but I have learned from their writings) never travelled very far at all. The greatest of all (by far), the God-Man Himself only travelled in a limited area. Travel does not necessarily make one wiser.3. Most importantly, the link posted by Katie has some very interesting data (thanks, Kate). Since some of you are clearly too lazy to check it, or too frightened to address its points, allow me to quote:"That condoms do not provide total protection against the transmission of HIV and STDs is compounded by the fact that the safe sex campaigns have led not to an increase in prudence, but to an increase in sexual promiscuity and condom use.[57] In fact, there are studies showing that HIV/AIDS cases increase as the number of condoms distributed also increases.[58] Human behaviour is an important factor in the transmission of AIDS. Without adequate education aimed at abandoning certain risky sexual behaviour in favour of well-balanced sexuality, as in pre-marital abstinence and marital fidelity, one risks perpetuating the pandemics disastrous results."That is just the first paragraph of this document, which appears on the OFFICIAL VATICAN website. I suggest that you actually read it. It refutes, more plainly than I could, ALL of your claims. Namely, that allowing condom use is not only wrong (making it spiritually destructive), it is also destructive physically.4: I take extreme comfort in the fact that your rejection of the points that I have made in this and other aspects of this issue are merely your rejection of OFFICIAL CHURCH TEACHING. I didn't make this stuff up. Nor am I, by any means, the first to advocate it.5: Right and wrong aren't complicated. NO ONE has refuted that the use of condoms is evil. Even those who advocate the destructive policy of rationalizing away condom use admit that it is evil.6: No one has yet addressed the fact that condom advocacy in this arena, by definition, excuses the violence that these actions represent. Meaning, firstly, that it excuses the possibility of violence to the woman if she doesn't consent (and again, why would a violent man in this condition ever succumb to his wife's request in this arena?). Secondly, it creates a false sense of protection. Try to place yourself in this situation. Your a sub-Saharan African woman who suspects her husband may have AIDS. Do you really want him touching you sexually even with a condom, which has, even by the most optomistic claims, at least a 10% chance of failure???Perhaps before we continue, you could answer these questions?

Greg, thanks for asking me to clarify myself.My point is that some Catholics OVERstate the dangers (or benefits) of certain procedures/practices to put Church teaching in the best light. I think this is dishonest.Fine to say that the Church endorses only NFP and does not sanction use of sterilization, the Pill, etc. on various spiritual grounds.Even fine to say that in following Church teaching, women avoid certain risks associated now known to be associated with surgical procedures and synthetic hormones.But it's important for people to understand that Church teaching is predicated on spiritual grounds, not medical health risks. it's important for people to understand that being Catholic means being called to sacrifice, not to do what's right, easy, fun, convenient, or medically beneficial.Catholics raise retarded children instead of aborting them. Unhappily married Catholics make the best of it so their children don't have to live in broken homes. A Catholic who has contracted HIV outside of marriage will not expect his or her spouse to have sex with a condom, and run even the slightest risk of infection. Catholics go into places in the world where no one else will go, like Fr. Damien to the leper colony. Catholics are willing to accept certain diseases rather than to embrace embryonic stem-cell research.BTW, thanks for posting the HMS site. I found the discussion clear and, as you promised, free of emotionalism.

Since we're on a linking binge, here's another:'ll believe it when I see it.

Grant, that last link doesn't work.


Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment