Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, April 28, 2006

The Magisterium, Condoms, and AIDS

In the April 29th edition of The Tablet [London], there is an interesting article on condoms/AIDS, Cardinal Martini's recent statements, and Benedict XVI's authorization of a review of magisterial teaching.  Click here.

In the same issue, there is this editorial:

Aids and the lesser evil

The Vatican could no longer ignore the evidence of a serious division of opinion in the Catholic Church about the use of condoms in the fight against HIV-Aids. It was therefore judicious of Pope Benedict XVI to call for a review of the medical and theological issues soon after his election, a review now being undertaken by the Pontifical Council for Health Care. News of the review coincided with the publication of an interview with Cardinal Martini, widely regarded as the principal alternative candidate for the papacy in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI a year ago, where he added his voice to those of other senior church figures who have expressed similar views in favour of a limited use of condoms. As he put it in an interview with an Italian magazine, there may be occasions where the use of a condom by a married person to protect their spouse from infection could be the lesser evil.

There are more than 39 million people with HIV, and Aids kills some three million a year. Every measure should be taken to reduce these totals, especially in Africa. The Catholic Church, through aid agencies such as Cafod and missionary organisations, is heavily involved in medical treatment, care for the victims, and care and education of orphaned children of victims. So the charge of callousness on this issue, so readily levelled by Western commentators, does not stand up. Many church leaders also oppose the use of condoms, sincerely convinced that widespread use can be part of the problem rather than part of the solution, on the grounds that it encourages promiscuity. Even those who advocate condom use agree that abstinence and fidelity remain vital in fighting the advance of Aids.

But the real problem for the Catholic Church lies elsewhere. Under the doctrine spelled out in the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, any use of condoms, for whatever reason, is immoral. There is no leeway for arguments about a lesser evil; it is irrelevant how effective condoms are against Aids. But it is also well known that in the panoply of Catholic moral teaching, that on contraception is most often disregarded by the faithful. Can the Vatican approve the use of contraceptives in connection with Aids, even in the textbook case of a married couple, without reopening the wider debate? Would that not be interpreted as a retreat from Humanae Vitae? Indeed, has the time come for such a move anyway, with Aids as the catalyst for an overdue development of doctrine? The Pope will be well aware of all these questions.

n 1968 the most persuasive reason advanced in favour of retaining the ban on artificial birth control was that to lift it would signal that the Church could change its mind, and hence undermine its teaching authority. That is ironic, given the damage done to that authority by the furore that followed. Today, however, far from weakening its position, the Church would gain much public credit by admitting that condoms should not be ruled out as a protection against HIV-Aids, even if the practical questions concerning their advisability remain to be addressed. And if that opens the door to wider issues, then so be it.


Perry, Michael | Permalink

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