Question: On his recent trip to Africa the Pope was widely criticised by the press for saying that condoms are not the answer to the AIDS crisis in Africa. Why doesn’t the Church allow the use of condoms to reduce the incidence and transmission of AIDS?
By Fr John Flader
The reason the Church does not allow condoms, or any other form of contraception, is that they go against the God-given purpose of human sexuality.
God made humans male and female and gave them the great gift of sexuality so that through acts of intimate love they could bring new life into the world. Through these acts they share in God’s creative power in a way that is aptly called “procreation”. It is truly an awesome gift.
In view of this, the Church teaches that “it is necessary that each and every marriage act remain ordered per se to the procreation of human life” (CCC 2366). Expressed in another way, whatever is done in conjunction with the marriage act to render procreation impossible, like the use of a condom, “is intrinsically evil” (CCC 2370).
If a couple used a condom to prevent the transmission of a disease like AIDS, even though the primary purpose of doing so was not to prevent procreation, their sexual union would still not be a truly marital act. Instead of giving and receiving each other completely in an act of love, they would be putting a barrier between themselves.
If one of the spouses is infected, true love would demand that they not risk infecting their spouse through the use of a condom. To subject one’s spouse to the risk of infection, should the condom fail, would not be a loving act.
In saying this, I acknowledge that there are reputable moral theologians who take the view that a married couple could use a condom to prevent the transmission of such a disease. But I believe the view I have expressed is more reliable and more faithful to the Church’s teaching.
Pope Benedict XVI himself, in an address to bishops of southern Africa on 10 June 2005 said that “the traditional teaching of the Church has proven to be the only fail-safe way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. For this reason, the companionship, joy, happiness and peace which Christian marriage and fidelity provide, and the safeguard which chastity gives, must be continuously presented to the faithful, particularly the young.”
But independently of moral considerations, condoms are not the answer in the fight against AIDS. While the Pope was criticised for his comments about condoms not being the solution, he was right.
Michael Cook, in an excellent article on mercatornet.com on March 21, made the point that the incidence of HIV/AIDS can actually rise with increased condom use. He cited the example of Cameroon, the country to which the Pope was flying when he made his comments to journalists. Between 1992 and 2001 condom sales there increased from 6 million to 15 million, or 2 ½ times, while the prevalence of HIV tripled, from 3 percent to 9 per cent.
The article quotes Dr Edward C. Green, a Harvard expert on AIDS prevention who is not a Catholic and describes himself as agnostic, as saying: “The Pope is actually correct.”
Dr Green explained that condom use is not only ineffective in lowering the incidence of AIDS, it “may even exacerbate HIV infection levels due to a phenomenon called risk compensation, or behavioural disinhibition. People take more sexual risks because they feel safer than is actually justified when using condoms.”
Another expert saying much the same thing is James Shelton, of the US Agency for International Development. In an article in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet on December 1, 2007, he wrote that one of the ten damaging myths about the fight against AIDS is that condoms are the answer: “Condoms alone have limited impact in generalised epidemics [as in Africa].” The success story in the reduction of HIV/AIDS is Uganda, which in 1986 adopted a strategy dubbed ABC: abstain from sex before marriage, be faithful to your spouse in marriage, and if this is not possible, use a condom. Between 1992 and 2002, the HIV infection rate fell from 21 per cent to six per cent, linked to a 60 per cent reduction in casual sex.
In the end, the Church and the Pope are right. Good morals is good medicine.