The Human Dimension

In 2003, Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo of the Pontifical Council for the Family made headlines by claiming that condoms are unsafe because HIV “can easily pass through.”

Some church officials disagreed publicly, but others dug in, and the impression was left that the church’s ban on condoms is absolute—to the point of fabricating facts and ignoring suffering. That perception colored the response to Pope Benedict XVI’s comments on the subject of condoms and AIDS during a March 2009 flight to Africa. Asked whether the church’s position on fighting AIDS is “unrealistic and ineffective,” Benedict spoke in broad terms about the need for “bringing out the human dimension of sexuality” and noted that without this change, “the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics; on the contrary, they increase it.” He was right.

Yet that comment was interpreted, perhaps understandably, as another refusal to admit that condoms can prevent the transmission of disease, and it overshadowed Benedict’s trip to Africa—a fact he complains about in Light of the World, a new book of interviews conducted by German journalist Peter Seewald. “Critics…object that it is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms,” Seewald noted. This time Benedict made it clear that he does not dispute the efficacy of condoms in the fight against AIDS. He repeated that “condoms alone do not resolve the question itself,” but he added that “in the case of some individuals,” condom use to prevent infection “can be…a first assumption of responsibility.” By acknowledging the moral value of preventing disease, Benedict has implicitly contradicted an interpretation of Humanae vitae that would absolutely forbid all condom use as inherently evil. The pope recognizes that while a morality without absolute principles offers little guidance, a morality that disregards human weakness is ineffectual, if not irrelevant. Reading this and other passages in the book, the Tablet’s Clifford Longley remarked that Benedict’s “commonsense refusal to be extreme is almost overwhelming.”

That refusal to be extreme has alarmed many theological conservatives. Some have denied the significance of Benedict’s comments. Others have attacked L’Osservatore Romano, which first published the book excerpts, or accused papal spokesperson Federico Lombardi, SJ, of twisting the pope’s meaning when he issued a clarification. And some, like Luke Gormally of the Pontifical Academy for Life, have criticized Benedict himself for being “irresponsible” and “self-indulgent.” Gormally described the interview as “a case of the pope retreating to his ‘comfort zone’ of writing and talking while neglecting urgent tasks of governance.” What really seems to disturb such critics is that the pope has stepped outside their comfort zone by discussing the real-world applications and limitations of the church’s teaching on contraception. But this is certainly not the first time a prominent theologian has spoken about the permissibility of condoms in preventing disease, and it is not even the first time Joseph Ratzinger has signaled a less-than-rigid perspective on contraception. As Peter Steinfels pointed out on the dotCommonweal blog, Cardinal Ratzinger said something similar in a 1996 book of interviews with Seewald titled Salt of the Earth. There too Ratzinger passed up a chance to simply denounce contraceptives in favor of discussing “the major objectives that the church has in mind” with its teaching on sexuality. Questions about birth-control use in marriage, he added, “can’t be projected into the abstract.”

Benedict seems to recognize that the “sheer fixation on the condom” he decries in Light of the World is not only damaging to sexual morality; it is also an obstacle to the church’s broader message about love, responsibility, and compassion. As long as the mention of the word “condom” is enough to provoke a firestorm, the division in the church will grow deeper, and the perception that the Vatican is indifferent to the plight of AIDS victims will persist.

Benedict’s comments do not reverse or contradict any established teaching, and they leave untouched the pressing issue of whether condom use can be approved for married couples where one spouse is infected with HIV. A Vatican commission began a study of that question in 2006, at Benedict’s request, but has thus far declined to release its findings, reportedly out of fear of sowing confusion. Yet the pope’s latest remarks, mild as they are, make the Vatican seem less confused and frightened about sex and contraception than it has in decades. That some within the church have responded with alarm demonstrates how overdue such frankness is. Another member of the Pontifical Academy for Life complained to journalist Sandro Magister, “Our Holy Father should stop talking about aberrant sex and talk more about Jesus.” Actually, that’s precisely what he was trying to do.


Related: John Wilson's review of Light of the World
The Church & AIDS in Africa, by Marcella Alsan
Local Knowledge, Melissa M. Matthes's review of The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight against AIDS, by Helen Epstein



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Just as the recent Popes have built a wall around contraception in order to have continuity with 1930s Popes condemnations,  this inordinate need for continuity is causing enormous gyrations.

Celibacy is indeed a charism... mandatory celibacy brings with it alienation from the eastern Church. Yet 3000 bishops remain silent.. [OK a half dozen unknowns speak out...]also I say the mandatory celibacy causes the  neglect in promulgating the theological concept of the 'domestic Church' [Another Eastern theology by St John Chrysostom] The neglect is understandable as why should the bishops talk about that kind of theology when the clerical CORE has no stake ?.  All this alienation for what is not even doctrine! About one in ten thousand Catholic lay people have heard concept of  'the domestic Church' yet bishops lament the walk away of the young. Because of the refusal  to label FAMILY as theology the bishops are left  to speak about cultural notions. They complain about same sex marriage with cultural arguments. lose lose lose..

thesis: Condoms alone will resolve the problem of AIDS.

antithesis: Condoms alone will not resove the question itself.

synthesis: Love, Responsibility and Compassion is what is needed to solve the problem of AIDS, not condoms.

synthesis: Love, Responsibility and Compassion is what is needed to solve the problem of AIDS,...agreed but condoms are one manifestation of "Love, Responsiblity and Compassion" AIDS ravished families...right!

F.Y.I.- interesting interview of Mike Wallace with Margaret Sanger:

Not to put to fine a point on it:  Trujillo was lying.  Condoms prevent the spread of AIDS, and a great deal else, too.  The Church has done enormous damage, not just in Africa, with their idiotic opposition to condoms.  Of course, the Church does not deal in reality, but in dogma, an entirely different thing.  And, being the voice of God means you can conceive and say every silly thing that enters your head; too bad there isn't a condom for doctrine!  As for the human dimension, including love, responsibility and compassion, it requires the use of condoms on every occasion when conception is not wanted, which is to say, almost all the time.  A side note on priestly celebacy:  priests in Uniate (Eastern Rite) churches often marry, and those renegade Anglicans who are so eagerly being adopted by Rome are mostly married.


Everyone is befuddled by this condemnation yet hint that perhaps it would be a good idea for the infected to employ condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. Maybe the next pope would be willing to actually do 21st century research that would lead to a logical, studied conclusion based on good science and not a defense of old dogma. We are presumptuous to be so definitive and positive about any of this. I think God judges otherwise.

I think it is important to note that Pope Benedict did not, in any way, say that condom use, even in these restrained circumstances, was moral or permissible.  He did not even hint that it might be.  He called it what it is, a step in the direction of morality.  Robbing someone with a knife istead of a gun out of concern of the greater risk of killing the victim would be a step in the direction of morality, but that does not make robbing someone with a knife moral or permissible. 

As for condoms in high-risk populations, the science actually backs up the Church's stance.  Condom-based policies simply have not worked.  What has shown the most success?  Policies that put the Catholic principles of monogamy and fidelity first.

As a last note, I cannot disagree more that condoms represent "Love, Compassion and Responsibility in AIDS-ravished families."  Condoms are not infallible.  They have a failure rate, even when properly used.  I cannot imagine any version of true love that would expose a partner to that kind of risk.  True love blanches at the idea of even a 1% chance of giving their partner a deadly disease.  To put sex - as good and as holy as the unitive quality of sex is - over your partner's well-being is not something that has a place in a truly loving marriage.

Ah, yes, the human demension, it is good to see it being regarded.  "The pope recognizes that while a morality without absolute principles offers little guidance, a morality that disregards human weakness is ineffectual, if not irrelevant."  Well said, and it needed saying.  We do need to get beyond the "sheer fixation on the condom."  We also need less commanding and more teaching from the pope, as pope Benedict seems to be doing.  We could also use this teaching emphasis from the bishops, as is discussed in the article "Teaching or Commanding?" (December 13 America magazine) by Nicholas Lash. 

Wineinthewater has it exactly right.  The Church permits sexual activity only between a man and a woman who are married.  All other sex is illicit in the eyes of the Church, with or without a condom.  It is not the role of the Pope to teach people how to sin safely.  I really find it hard to believe that anyone contemplating adultery despite its explicit prohibition in the 10 commandments is going to listen to the Church about condoms.  It's like person about to rob a bank worrying about whether to J-walk on the way there.

I wish the editors would have mentioned the Pope's defense of the Chruch's position on Aids.  He flatly stated that no institution does more.  It is the only institution that "assists people up close and concretely, with prevention, education, help, counsel and accompaniment.  And she is second to none in treating so many Aids victims, especially children with Aids."  Again, "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."  There is so much more he discussed that it makes Commonweal's editorial look like a sloppy analysis of these few short paragraphs of Peter Seewald's book.  Another thing, the issue of condoms was well down the list of major issues addressed in the book.  Why?  Just take ask your readers if they follow the Church's teaching on artificial birth control. It's a non issue the media have puffed up way out of proportion. 

The Church does not want to open the debate on the morality of an HIV-infected husband to use a condom to protect his wife from this disease. To do this would expose Humanae Vitae to reasonable and sensible criticism and force a re-thinking of this doctrine. The Church asserts the celibacy is the only answer for a serodiscordant couple. To open the debate would force the Church to address the following theological questions:

> By using a condom, does not the HIV postive husband perform an act of Health and Safety, a form of the virtue of charity and justice for his wife, and not a contraceptive actg?

> Woud not celibacy be an act of injustice and not proportionat to the survivibility of the marriage (especially for young couples)?

> Does not the husband perform an act of charity and prudence if he rejects celibacy in order to express conjugal love to his wife? Or is the aptness of generation (the penis must be inserted into the vagina and semen desposited in its proper place for procreation) the supreme moral obligation for this couple regardless of circumstances, intentions or consequences? 



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