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May 2, 2006
Condoms And Catholics In The Age Of AIDS

The Vatican has undertaken a review of its teachings on condom use, as the conservative Pope Benedict reconciles the church's mission to protect life within the age of AIDS. The Pope requested a report from theologians about the doctrinal implications of condom usage within marriage when one partner carries HIV or has developed full-blown AIDS:

Even at the Vatican, not all sacred beliefs are absolute: Thou shalt not kill, but war can be just. Now, behind the quiet walls, a clash is shaping up involving two poles of near certainty: the church's long-held ban on condoms and its advocacy of human life.

The issue is AIDS. Church officials recently confirmed that Pope Benedict XVI had requested a report on whether it might be acceptable for Catholics to use condoms in one narrow circumstance: to protect life inside a marriage when one partner is infected with H.I.V. or is sick with AIDS.

Whatever the pope decides, church officials and other experts broadly agree that it is remarkable that so delicate an issue is being taken up. But they also agree that such an inquiry is logical, and particularly significant from this pope, who was Pope John Paul II's strict enforcer of church doctrine.

"In some ways, maybe he has got the greatest capacity to do it because there is no doubt about his orthodoxy," said the Rev. Jon Fuller, a Jesuit physician who runs an AIDS clinic at the Boston Medical Center.

Put another way, for those of us who follow politics, only Nixon can wear a rubber. An activist Pope would never have the standing in the Church to make this adjustment; a new teaching would, of course, be followed -- but it would likely get reversed during a succeeding papacy. If a Pope such as Benedict, with his lifelong adherence to strict doctrine, makes this change, the new teaching will have much more impact.

In order to understand why this would be an issue at all -- and why it isn't really that much of a change -- one has to know why the Church bans condoms at all. The Church has taught that the act of sexual intercourse has a natural purpose of procreation, the purpose for which God intended it. Therefore, when a married couple engages in sex, the pair must be open to procreation. Condoms and birth control in general frustrate this purpose, and turns the act into nothing more than an expression of lust with no sacramental quality at all. Therefore the Church bans their use.

Many certainly disagree with the Church, and for many reasons. Catholics have more or less decided to use this teaching as more of a guide than a rule since it was most prominently taught in 1968, with Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae. For some, conception could have severe complications for the woman, such as those with diabetes or some other life-threatening illness. Priests often (but not always) counseled such couples to pray about the decision to use birth control in marriage and follow their own consciences.

The spread of AIDS, especially in Africa where heterosexual transmission has caused the disease to race out of control, presents a clearer and more pressing example of the same dynamic. Regardless of whether one partner or the other has engaged in extramarital sex, the uninfected partner is a potential victim, and one which Humanae Vitae fails to protect. The implications for this policy are staggering. Teaching Africans that condom use is a sin creates conditions that kill people, and not just theoretically, and not just a few.

Given that the entire basis for the Church's position on condoms is the protection of life, this is obviously a policy that requires immediate rethinking. Pope Benedict should restate the church teaching on condom use to acknowledge that the married couple themselves deserve protection from sexual transmission of deadly diseases and from the consequences of pregnancy when it puts the mother's life in physical jeopardy. The fact that this Pope has agreed to review the policy shows a great deal of promise that a rational position may be at hand.

Addendum: Of course, this has no bearing on the use of condoms outside of marriage, but one has to put that Church doctrine in its proper context. Years ago, when I belonged to a young-adult group, our sponsoring priest held a wide-ranging Q&A with us, and one topic was premarital sex and birth control use. Father Walt told us that committing the sin of sex outside of marriage was by far the more damaging act. Refusing to wear a condom because of its supposedly sinful implications would be, at that point, rather laughable.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 2, 2006 5:22 AM

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