Washington Post Examines South African Catholic Bishop’s Advocacy for Condom Access
The Washington Post on Wednesday examined how South African Catholic Bishop Kevin Dowling's support of condom access to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS differs from the Catholic Church's official stance on the subject (Boustany, Washington Post, 4/26). Pope Benedict XVI in a June 2005 speech to African bishops said that contraception is one of many trends contributing to a "breakdown of sexual morality," adding that abstinence and fidelity are the only "fail-safe" ways to prevent the spread of HIV (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 4/24). Dowling, who is the only one of the 30-member South African Council of Bishops to favor condom access, works in the "slums" of Rustenberg, South Africa, the Post reports. "I don't underestimate the veracity of abstinence before marriage and loyalty among couples," Dowling said, asking, "But what about the vulnerable women who don't have that option? What about realizing that the official church in circumstances of human living does not respond to that reality?"
Recent Church Leader Statements
Dowling said he is encouraged by recent statements on the issue by some Catholic cardinals and the book "Catholic Ethicists on HIV/AIDS Prevention" -- edited by Jesuit priests James Keenan and Jon Fuller -- which says that the church should have relaxed its ban on condoms 20 years ago (Washington Post, 4/26). Cardinal Carol Maria Martini, retired archbishop of Milan, Italy, in comments published last week in Italy's L'Espresso, said, "Certainly, the use of condoms can constitute in certain situations a lesser evil," adding, "There's ... the unique situation of a married couple, one of whom is afflicted with AIDS. That one is obliged to protect the other, and the other must be able to protect him or herself." Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, head of the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care, in an interview published on Sunday in Rome's La Repubblica, said the pope has asked the council and other scientists and theologians to study condom use as a means of HIV prevention, adding that the Vatican will soon release a document on the issue (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 4/24). Dowling believes the church should extend Martini's suggestion of relaxing the condom ban for married couples with one HIV-positive person to include "women and girl children who are subject to all kinds of abuse" (Washington Post, 4/26).
Editorial, Opinion Piece
- Martini's comments last week that condom use is a "lesser evil" when used to prevent HIV transmission and reports that the Church's leadership is "taking a new look at the issue of condoms and AIDS, ... see[m] to indicate that the Vatican is engaged in a genuine reassessment of the condom issue, at least where married couples are concerned," a Los Angeles Times editorial says. The Catholic Church's teaching that married couples should not use birth control "has stood as an obstacle to an endorsement by the Vatican of the use of condoms to help contain" the spread of HIV, according to the editorial. However, a "precedent in Catholic teaching" allows for the "use of condoms to prevent disease," the editorial says. Specifically, a doctrine in Catholic theology known as the "double effect" allows a person to engage in an act that can have good and bad consequences, if the good consequences make up for the bad and the act is "morally good or at least indifferent," the editorial says. According to the Times, "If birth control is an evil (a proposition that even many Catholics question), it is certainly a lesser one than contributing to the scourge of AIDS" (Los Angeles Times, 4/27).
- Martini and other Catholic leaders have correctly used the "principle of the lesser of two evils" when it comes to condom use to prevent HIV transmission, but "[t]he critical question is how to understand and explain the moral argument in a way that does not offer a free pass for irresponsible sexual behavior," the Rev. Gerald Coleman, professor of moral theology at St. Patrick's Seminary and University, writes in a San Francisco Chronicle opinion piece. "If a person who is HIV-positive or who has AIDS refuses to abstain from sexual intercourse then this person can be counseled to use a condom to avoid the greater evil of transmitting the disease," according to Coleman. However, he writes that "[n]o one should be under the illusion that the use of condoms is an absolute safeguard to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS," adding, "Saying that the church is OK with condoms is not the same as a careful moral analysis and use of the principle of the lesser of two evils" (Coleman, San Francisco Chronicle, 4/26).