Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
March 23, 2009
Pope confronts Catholic condom conundrum
Church's approach to aids is most effective, Benedict tells reporters
BY JOHN THAVIS
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE
YAOUNDE, CAMEROON — Pope Benedict’s declaration that distribution of condoms only increases the problem of AIDS is one of the strongest statements in a simmering debate inside the Church.
The pope was speaking to journalists aboard his flight to Cameroon March 17, and he was asked whether the Church’s approach to AIDS prevention — which focuses primarily on sexual responsibility and rejects condom campaigns — was unrealistic and ineffective.
The pope framed his answer in terms of the Church’s service to those with AIDS and its efforts to promote what he called a “humanization of sexuality” that includes fidelity and self-sacrifice.
The pope did not get into the specific question of whether in certain circumstances condom use was morally licit or illicit in AIDS prevention, an issue that Vatican theologians are still studying.
Here is the exchange that took place on the pope’s plane. The question’s premise was “The Catholic Church’s position on the way to fight against AIDS is often considered unrealistic and ineffective,” and the pope responded:
“I would say the opposite. I think that the reality that is most effective, the most present and the strongest in the fight against AIDS, is precisely that of the Catholic Church, with its programs and its diversity.
“I think of the Sant’Egidio Community, which does so much visibly and invisibly in the fight against AIDS . . . and of all the sisters at the service of the sick.
“I would say that one cannot overcome this problem of AIDS only with money — which is important, but if there is no soul, no people who know how to use it, (money) doesn’t help.
“One cannot overcome the problem with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, they increase the problem.
“The solution can only be a double one: first, a humanization of sexuality, that is, a spiritual human renewal that brings with it a new way of behaving with one another; second, a true friendship even and especially with those who suffer, and a willingness to make personal sacrifices and to be with the suffering. And these are factors that help and that result in real and visible progress.
“Therefore I would say this is our double strength — to renew the human being from the inside, to give him spiritual human strength for proper behaviour regarding one’s own body and toward the other person, and the capacity to suffer with the suffering. . . .
“I think this is the proper response and the Church is doing this, and so it offers a great and important contribution.”
It should be noted that the pope was not blindsided by the question. Under the current practice on papal flights, reporters submit questions to the Vatican several days in advance, then a selection is made, presumably giving the pope time to prepare his responses.
The following day, the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, returned to the subject of condoms and AIDS in a briefing for reporters.
Lombardi said the pope’s comments on the plane were in line with the Church’s basic position on AIDS, which has never had “excessive or absolute trust in condom distribution” as a way to stop the spread of the disease.
The Church’s approach is based largely on education toward sexual responsibility, the spokesman said.
Overemphasis on condoms “does not allow for an adequate concentration of attention on this formation and sense of responsibility,” he said.
In saying that condom-promotion programs only increase the problem, the pope appeared to agree with those who have put forward several arguments:
That condoms have a failure rate and so are never completely safe;
That encouragement of condom use may promote promiscuity, a factor in the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS;
That reliance on condom campaigns has overshadowed more effective means of prevention — fidelity and chastity.
There is another factor in the pope’s thinking, according to an Italian theologian, Franciscan Father Maurizio Faggioni, who has advised the Vatican on sexual morality issues.
The pope sees condom campaigns as a question of cultural violence, especially in Africa, where there has never been a “contraceptive mentality,” Faggioni said.
The question of whether condom use in some circumstances may be morally acceptable is a separate and more difficult question, Faggioni told Catholic News Service.
Some bishops and cardinals have argued that a married couple in which one spouse has AIDS may reasonably be expected to use condoms to prevent transmission of the deadly disease.
Others have said the Church’s teaching against contraception regards married couples and that, because sexual relations outside marriage are already considered immoral, discussion of condom use outside marriage is irrelevant.
In 2006, Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, head of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, announced that his council had handed in a 200-page study on condoms in AIDS prevention, for further development by the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation.
The council’s study, Barragan said at that time, included “an enormous rainbow” of theological and moral positions.
Sources told CNS in mid-March that the doctrinal congregation’s action on the report has been quietly put on hold, at least for the moment.
Another source said that after looking more closely at the question, the Church experts decided it was premature for the Vatican to make a comprehensive statement on condom use.
That is in part because many believed that discussion of the theological nuances would only invite confusion in the media and among Catholics, the source said.
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