Soon after he was made pope, Benedict XVI ordered a report on the spicy question of condoms. A papal ruling may be coming soon. Will the Pope relax the rules on condoms? His will not be an easy decision to make. The Church’s historical stance on condoms as well as on other forms of contraception was a firm no. As recent as 1993, artificial contraception was defined by the Church as ‘intrinsically evil’ (John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor). According to the Church, sex may only take place within marriage, homosexual sex is forbidden as are heterosexual acts between unmarried people.
Only very recently (in Church terms) has the Catholic Church made her first concession in this area: In 1951, Pope Pius XII informed midwives in Rome that the rhythm method was henceforth an acceptable family planning technique. This was a dramatic departure from all that the Church had been teaching up to that moment with regard to sex. In the past, the Church had preached that sex was evil (St. Augustine), that the pleasure derived from the act was evil (Pope Gregory the Great) and that sex was only meant by God as a way of insemination (St Thomas Aquinas). Now, with papal permission, one could calculate the days on which a couple could have sex with a certainty that it would not produce a child. Sex was no longer only meant for procreation. The notion that sex was there to be enjoyed was given support in a 1965 document of the Second Vatican Council which states that ‘actions within marriage by which the couple are united intimately and chastely are noble and worthy ones.’
Other forms of family planning such as the pill or the condom continue to be prohibited. AIDS, however, has changed the status of condoms even in polite society. Once, only sold under the counter they are now easily obtainable in most countries. Doctors, scientists and the World Health Organisation consider them an effective barrier which prevents the transmission of the virus during sexual intercourse. Most governments support sex education which promotes their use. The Catholic Church is steadfast in her opposition. The Church must have decided that it was not enough to repeat the Scripture and tradition related prohibition on contraception and that she should attempt and dissuade people from using condoms by proffering clinical and scientific arguments, albeit false arguments and flawed science. A leading Cardinal, Alfonso Lopez Trujilo, as President of the Vatican’s Council for the Family, demanded that a health warning, ‘the condom is not safe’, be attached to condom packages and vending machines. He explained: ‘in the case of the AIDS virus which is 450 times smaller than the sperm cell, the condom’s latex material obviously gives much less security.’
Unfortunately, lies about the inefficacy of condoms are repeated by both senior Hierarchy and lower clergy especially in the lesser-developed countries, the very countries which bear the main burden of AIDS. In South Africa the Catholic Bishops Conference stated that ‘The Bishops regard the widespread and indiscriminate promotion of condoms as an immoral and misguided weapon in our battle against HIV/AIDS…condoms may even be one of the main reasons for the spread of HIV/AIDS’ In Kenya, bishops produced a pamphlet which claimed that ‘Latex rubber from which condoms are made does have pores through which viral sized particles can squeeze through during intercourse.’ Elsewhere, bishops organised the burning of condoms and of sex education literature. Several days ago, Brazil’s Cardinal Geraldo Majella criticised the Brazilian government for handing out 10 million condoms over the carnival period, explaining ‘They think that it’s going to help but I don’t believe in that.’ Such lies are as pernicious as the AIDS virus itself.
There has been noteworthy internal opposition to the Church’s formal teaching. Indeed, some members of the clergy actively promote condoms to populations at risk, such as prostitutes, thereby risking disciplinary action by their superiors. Two years ago, Swiss Cardinal Georges Cottier, the theologian to the pontifical household, suggested in an interview, that in certain cases the use of condoms ‘could be considered legitimate.’ Cottier stressed that he was not speaking for the pope, when he explained that in his opinion condom use was legitimate as a means to avoid transferring the HIV virus during sexual intercourse. He is not the only senior clergyman pressing for change in this area. The previous pope, John Paul II and his main enforcer of theological discipline, Cardinal Ratzinger would have none of it. Now Ratzinger is pope himself. Will Pope Benedict XVI allow what he forbade as Cardinal Ratzinger?
He will be damned if he will and damned if he won’t. Catholics in developing countries continue to suffer and die because of the Church’s anti-condom instructions. Most European and North American Catholics ignore Church teaching concerning sex. And yet, do they want their Church to drop one of her fundamental teachings? Is not the knowledge that all sins can be forgiven part of their relationship with their Church? Will permitting the use of condoms in limited circumstances not open the door to wider use of condoms? Will not allowing condoms now mean that thousands of Catholics who have died from AIDS because they heeded Church instructions have died in vain?
This is a serious dilemma for the pope and he actually may be in the unique position of playing it safe by not allowing the use of condoms.
Dr. David Ranan is the author of Double Cross: The Code of the Catholic Church (436 pp, Theo Press, £15.99)