The Pope was right

Shock, horror! The Pope says that condoms are not the answer to Aids in Africa, and may make matters worse. It would seem that virtually every news source, together with France, Germany, the European Union and other authorities, trumpet and condemn his words. He is out of touch, biased by doctrine and potentially responsible for many future deaths.

Yes, there is a scandal. And it’s a scandal of media behaviour and sad ignorance. First, what did the Pope actually say? “This problem of Aids can’t be overcome only with publicity slogans. If there is not the soul, if the Africans are not helped, the scourge can’t be resolved with the distribution of condoms: on the contrary, there is a risk of increasing the problem. The solution can only be found in a double commitment: first, a humanisation of sexuality, that is, a spiritual and human renewal that brings with it a new way of behaving with one another; and second, a true friendship, also and above all for those who suffer, the willingness — even with sacrifice and self-denial — to be with the suffering. And these are the factors that help and that lead to visible progress.”

A rather more nuanced picture, I think you would agree. But is the Pope talking though his mitre? On the contrary, he is bang up to date, and by up to date I mean March 2009.

Many will recall the paper published by Cafod in 2004 (Ann Smith et al) whose analysis showed the interconnections between different factors and the various elements which play a part both in the spread and the control of the disease. There was no one answer. Because it was evidence-based, and not a polemic, it accepted that condoms could play some part in the mix. It caused a stir, although Cafod does not fund agencies for whom condoms are central to their programmes. But it must be emphasised, because it appears to be little known, that the Church’s teaching on contraception applies only to marriage. It has made no ruling on its use outside marriage, and I would certainly argue that unprotected sexual contact outside marriage compounds the sin. 

In 2007 I interviewed a non-Catholic journalist (Rhidian Brook) who had spent three months living in, mainly African, local communities in Aids-ridden areas. He said: “Condoms are about as important to controlling Aids as recycling your green bottles is to global warming. They are just a plaster. Poverty has far more to do with Aids than condoms.”

An important paper on the subject was published in Studies of Family Planning (March 2009) by Edward C Green et al, under the auspices of the Harvard Centre for Population and Development Studies. It is an academic paper, replete with supporting references to relevant studies. But you could almost believe that the Pope was reading it as he flew to Africa. You can study it for yourself.       

We tend to look at outbreaks of Aids through western eyes. They occur in high-risk groups, and so are limited. In sub-Saharan Africa they are national epidemics and need to be treated as such. Reviewing this paper together with an interview given to The National Review Online, I find Green firmly saying: “We have found no consistent associations between condom use and lower HIV-infection rates, which, 25 years into the pandemic, we should be seeing if this intervention was working.” 

The strategy of ABC (Abstinence, Be faithful, use Condoms), which is consistent with Cafod’s study, has proved effective in several countries when it has been energetically promoted and supported at national level.

Green tells us that even the Demographic Health Surveys, which are funded by the US, show that greater availability and use of condoms leads to higher, rather than lower, HIV rates. This may be the result of people taking greater risks, and perhaps doing so in the light of drug treatments effective in keeping HIV at bay. We might recall here our own lamentable rates of teenage pregnancy despite the emphasis on condom education in our schools.

“The best and latest empirical evidence,” Green claims, “shows that reduction in multiple and concurrent sexual partners is the most important single behaviour change associated with reduction in HIV-infection rates (the other major factor is male circumcision).” Studies in Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe have shown that such a reduction in multiple relationships has led, shortly after, to a substantial reduction in HIV rates.

This is the “Be faithful” component in the strategy, but the “Abstinence” component is also important, although the evidence is not as complete. Nor should we forget that condoms (despite Cardinal Trujillo’s gross misinformation on the subject) are a highly effective, if not infallible, prophylactic. For instance, Green tells us, consistent use of condoms by couples, one of whom is infected, reduces the rate of transmission by 80 to 90 per cent. We are still awaiting Rome’s response on this last issue, following several senior prelates questioning the standing prohibition. The delay is doing damage. Condoms can also play a useful role in the commercial sex market.

So the Pope was right. His deep and important message is that we cannot solve the problems caused through the misuse of sexuality merely by throwing slogans, money and artificial remedies at them. It cannot be done without the proper use of the sexual faculty, that is – if I may use an unfashionable word – chastity. Nor is this pie in the sky. We now know that this works in sub-Saharan Africa, as indeed it could work within our own sick society.

But was the Pope prudent to make this response in these particular circumstances? Given the voracious and venal media which watches every phrase for a scandal, I think not. It has overshadowed many other important messages of no interest to the headline-hungry. He would have done better to have sidestepped the question at the time, and then given a measured and factual statement on the subject, if that were needed. 

Napoleon said that he wanted generals who were lucky. But Pope Benedict is unlucky. He is a holy man of the highest intelligence, yet he has shown a knack for proffering hostages to fortune. I don’t want a “street wise” pope, with a continual eye for the jackals. I am proud of what he said. But experience must teach him how to proclaim the truth so that it is the truth and not the media flak which the world comes to hear.

So what do you think? Do you agree with Pope Benedict in his statement? Do you think he could have handled the situation better? Or is he right simply to tell the truth when he is asked? You may like to look at the documents concerned.

You will find the Pope’s interview here.

My thanks to James H, who frequently contributes to this Blog, for his lead to the Edward Green Paper.

The National Review interview with Green

Cafod’s approach to HIV prevention.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Church and Society, Moral judgment. Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to The Pope was right

  1. Frank says:

    I think it would not have mattered what the Pope said – unless, of course, he had made a bland, neutral statement, saying nothing important; the world’s media behaves like vultures swooping down on their prey. Even a comment in the Telegraph, trying to be ‘nice’ to the Pope, described him as a ‘bachelor in his 70s’ – wrong on both counts.
    Christ said things that were unpalatable; so does Benedict. The Truth will set us free – but we must be prepared to be persecuted for it.

  2. claret says:

    Africa is the HIV ‘capital’ of the world, so it was inconceiveable that the Pope on a visit to that country would not be asked about it and for the waiting media (knowing full well the teaching of the RC church on the use of condoms,) were eagerly ready and waiting to seize on any remarks that remotely spoke against the use of condoms in a world that has convinced itself that the answer to HIV in Africa is greater use of them.
    Trying to find an answer to the spread of HIV it is all too easy to see greater and wider use of condoms as such an answer and that any organisation having an opposite view is, per se, the enemy of a reduction in that disease.
    As has been pointed out by Quentin we have a similar situation in the UK where the answer to ever greater numbers of teenage pregnancies is yet more of the same ‘remedy’ that has palpably failed so far.
    This was a ‘no win’ situation that the Pope faced. There was nothing he could have said that would have led to a balanced reporting by the media present, nearly all of whom, would have virtually had their reports ready before the Pope even spoke!
    Was it not one of the leading ‘quality’ papers in this country that labelled Pope JP 2 as ‘responsible for the death of millions,’ by standing firm on the matter of condom use in Africa. A peice of journalism that went virtually unopposed, and that in any other context would have been a case of blatant libel.

  3. Frank says:

    I agree with Claret. It was a no-win situation.

    Joanna Bogle made the comment, in her clash with Jon Snow on Channel 4 recently, that Westerners see condom-use in the light of (supposed) western self-control and responsibility. African men (and it is almost always the men who spread AIDS) have no such (supposed) self-control or sense of responsibility; asking them to use condoms is a self-defeating exercise.
    We are asking men who are already debased in their lives and understanding of male/femal relations, to be further debased by such a ‘solution’.
    To ask them to be faithful to their wives/girl friends shows them a higher and more noble purpose to sexual behaviour. Are we suggesting that Africans are not capable of self-sacrificing behaviour? I have heard cultured and intelligent Westerners remark that ‘All African men are promiscuous/sex mad’.
    The Holy Father, not the Western press, upholds the intrinsic dignity of Africans.

  4. Juliana says:

    As an insomniac, I heard on the World Service news at least three times last night (in the first slot each time) that “the most illustrious medical journal – The Lancet – was demanding that the Pope make an apology for his dangerous, ill-informed and life-threatening medical pronouncement on condom use” or words to that effect. In fact they were more inflammatory and they selectively misquoted him.

    This did not make it on to Radio 4 news this morning and I am glad as it was angry…but this “demand” from The Lancet might furnish the Pope with a chance to marshall his facts and present a well-researched case as Quentin has done.

    One statistic I read by Michael Cook in his on-line articles at was that in Cameroon for example, condom sales between 1992 and 2001 went up from 6 million to 15 million and during the same time the incidence of AIDS tripled from 3% to 9%. The trouble with condoms is that they give people a false sense of security. If people feel 100% safe they take higher risks.

    If Quentin or anyone else would like to read this article Michael Cook also quotes Edward Green of Harvard whom Quentin mentions.

  5. Trident says:

    I see in the Telegraph this Saturday morning that The Lancet has accused the Pope of distorting science to his own ends, and demanding retraction. Given its authority I thought I ought to check the references given by Quentin. Surprise, surprise! The Pope (and Quentin) is absolutely right. I found the National Review interview was a good place to start.
    It’s truly shocking that there should be so much prejudice against the Church that a formerly reputable journal is either ignorant of, or prefers to ignore. the empirical evidence. It is The Lancet which needs to retract.
    Perhaps some people would like to write a polite but firm email letter to the Lancet editor. I have. His address is

  6. tim says:

    Quentin, your defence of what the Pope said is convincing and most welcome. But you query whether he should have said it, or at least in the form he did. But surely, whatever he says, it will be misreported, whether through incompetence, malice, or simply to spice the story up. His only choice is to speak up or keep silent – which wouldn’t prevent his silence being misinterpreted.

  7. Tim, I have thought about your comment carefully. Perhaps best summed up in Frank’s phrase a “no-win” situation. And I don’t disagree entirely with either of you. But let’s take this in context.

    First we had the Regensburg address. The substance of this was marvellous, but his reference to an historical Islamic incident took over the headlines. He had been warned beforehand of the dangers of this. He had no need to use the Muslim incident in order to make his point.

    Then we had the revocation of excommunication of the Lefebvrist bishops without first obtaining their formal acceptance to Vatican II, nor did he seem to be aware of the Holocaust denial by Bishop Williamson – or the problems that would cause.

    Although he had time to prepare his answer, he made his point about condoms in a way that was bound to be interpreted as doctrinal rather than simply a matter of well established fact.

    Suppose he had answered “The best available data suggests that the increase of the general distribution of condoms is associated with higher rates of infection. On the other hand initiatives to promote sexual fidelity and chastity have proved effective in lowering rates of infection etc.” then the press comment would have had to be completely different.

    There would no doubt have been arguments about the accuracy of this statement, but the facts would have emerged. See, for instance, Juliana above. And of course the Harvard paper from which I quote.

    Incidentally, my reason for writing the article was the number of good, educated, Catholics who, guided by the media and with no particular knowledge of sub-Saharan Africa, expressed their deep concern to me about the Pope’s apparent refusal to allow condoms to save lives for reasons of dogma.

  8. claret says:

    Just to widen the discussion a bit further I have often wondered how many catholics there are in Africa compared to other religions (and none.) How many of those Catholics actually practise their faith and , in the matter of HIV prevention, how many men in the whole of the African population don’t use condoms solely on the basis that the Church (Pope) teaches against their use.
    My guess is that it would be stretching the imagination to its limits to make a case for men who live lifestyles contrary to Church teaching on faithfulness in marriage, and abstinence out of marriage, that they would somehow be influenced by a Church teaching on the non use of condoms!
    I would be surprised if it amounted to more than a thousand such men in the whole continent!
    In other words these condemnations that are directed in a very personal way at the Pope ( as opposed to his simply upholding Church teaching,) are nothing more than a deliberate attempt to shift the blame for Aids in Africa away from the true causes and to use the Pope as a scapegoat for failed policies over which he has no control.
    In other words even if the Church approved the use of condoms would it make one iota of difference to the spead of HIV in Africa?

  9. claret says:

    Just to add that I thought this topic was about the use (or non use) of condoms in Africa in line with RC teachings. It is not about the Pope’s gaffes in relation to his PR skills is it?
    It also needs re-stating that it is not the Pope’s ruling about condoms, it is the Church’s ruling and the Pope is the visible spokesperson on the teachings of the Church.
    If the rules are wrong then it is for the Church to change them.
    I regret to see those friends of Quentin as being ‘educated’ if they are unable to see beyond media rhetoric and bias.
    No one will ever convince anyone about condoms not being the ‘answer’ to the spread of HIV in Africa unless you are a Catholic that holds true to the teachings of the Church. I suspect that there are not too many journalists that fall into this category. It is sad when Catholics are only too ready to condemn their own Church teachings by believing in propaganda that is anti-catholic.
    It is perhaps worth repeating to all those doubters that if the world were to adhere to Catholic moral teaching on sexual matters then there would be no HIV, no Aids, No STI’s, and a massive reduction in a whole host of other social and health problems.

  10. I do not want to be a spoilsport but I think I must copy here a passage from my column: “But it must be emphasised, because it appears to be little known, that the Church’s teaching on contraception applies only to marriage. It has made no ruling on its use outside marriage, and I would certainly argue that unprotected sexual contact outside marriage compounds the sin.

    The Church’s prohibition on contraception is based entirely on the nature of marriage. Read the documents. Nothing is said about its use outside marriage; sexual acts outside marriage are prohibited anyway. Thus whether condoms are distributed for sex outside marriage is not a doctrinal issue but simply a question of whether free distribution and exhortation leads to more sex outside marriage with the indirect effect of more HIV infection.

    We have an irony here. An infected member of a marriage dare not have sexual contact within the marriage because condoms are forbidden, but he or she not only can use a condom in an adulterous act but, in my view, would be morally obliged to for fear of adding to the sin.

    Make of that tangled web what you wish.

  11. claret says:

    I do not want to be a ‘spoilsport’ either ( strange use of the word, is it not?)
    But , in turn , I would refer you back to my comments above. Just how many men fall into the categories you are talking about Quentin? Would there be enough to make one iota of difference to the spread of Aids?
    You cannot separate the Church’s teachings on the use of condoms from the wider issue of sex outside marriage.
    To be pedantic the Church’s teachings are about birth control in marriage not about condoms per se.
    Sexual intercourse outside of marriage , as you state, is a sinful act in itself. It does not require any further prohibitions.
    Unnatural birth control within marriage, in whatever form, is also sinful.
    It is the media and ‘public opinion ‘ that has marginalised the Church’s teachings on birth control into the use of condoms.
    Misleading and erroneous use of language has come to equate condoms with ‘safe sex.’
    This equates , in some minds, that a prohibition of condoms means inevitably that the Church is against ‘safe sex’ and therefore promotes the spread of disease.
    It also provides a ready make excuse to shift the blame for the spread of Aids to the teachings of the Catholic Church!

  12. Claret, I don’t disagree with you. But as I read your contribution of 28 March I understand you to be saying, or at least implying, that the Pope was talking about condoms as a doctrinal matter. Whereas he was talking about the practical policies which would, or would not, be effective in dealing with epidemic HIV.

    It is not pedantic to make the distinction between condoms used outside marriage and condoms used inside marriage – it is both correct and important. It was Bertrand Russell who defined a pedant as someone who took care to be correct. I’m happy with that. (But doesn’t stop me making mistakes!)

    I am sure you are right that there are few people in Africa who take notice of what the Pope says, although it may be worth remembering that these are often macho cultures in which women have little control. Condoms are culturally unpopular. And they are often poor quality through substandard manufacture or storage problems.

    Your sequence of public thought about the Church’s attitude in the media mind is, I think, spot on. But you might try, as an experiment, asking a few Catholics you know whether the Church forbids condoms outside marriage. I suspect you will find that many of them are not clear about this.

  13. Horace says:

    Here is the translation by ZENIT from the reference given by Quentin
    “. . if the Africans are not helped, the scourge can’t be resolved with the distribution of condoms: on the contrary, there is a risk of increasing the problem.”
    Assuming that this translation is substantially correct, contrast it with Quentin’s (I suspect tongue in cheek) suggestion
    “The best available data suggests that the increase of the general distribution of condoms is associated with higher rates of infection. On the other hand initiatives to promote sexual fidelity and chastity have proved effective in lowering rates of infection . .
    Do we want a pope who makes intelligent, bold, straightforward and reasonable comments or one who pussyfoots around problems on the advice of PR experts?

    Re Quentin’s other point about the use of condoms ‘per se’.
    This reminds me of an episode in the early 1950’s when, as a junior Royal Air Force Medical Officer, I was instructed to lecture on this subject. I carefully eschewed the moral aspects, confining myself to performance and prophylaxis.
    Of course, it immediately became evident that my audience knew very much more than I did! The result was a little embarrassing but, at least in retrospect, hilarious.

    Here we are, I suggest, once again in the quagmire territory of “double effect”. ( see Life, death and the fallopian tube – 19 Jun 2008 ). If we can say that applying a condom to the penis prior to sexual intercourse (and ignoring for the moment whether the intercourse is morally licit or not) is a morally neutral act; then if there is one good effect [ protection against AIDS] and one bad effect [contraception] resulting, then, providing that the side-effect is not intended and is proportionate, the action is justified.

  14. Claret. Yes, I had the same situation addressing my grizzled platoon back in 1954. I doubt if they took much benefit.

    No, I don’t have my tongue in my cheek. The editorial in the Lancet directly accused the Pope of falsifying science in order to uphold a doctrinal position. I don’t think that phrasing his message so that it is clearly presented as in accord with the latest empirical data would have permitted such a vicious slur.

    PR itself has a bad press. But good PR means getting the right message across to the right audience. Was it bad PR for St Paul to base his argument to the Athenians on their altar to the Unknown God? It was a good rhetorical move to link what he was about to say to a concept which they had already accepted. And it would have been good PR for the Pope to have linked his view to empirical data – a concept which even the ragged media have to accept, or dispute at that level.

    I don’t think your ‘double effect’ argument holds. Pulling a revolver trigger is in itself a neutral act, but the action as a whole depends on who it’s pointed at. There is of course an argument proposed by a number of theologians that, when the primary purpose of a condom is prophylactic, and the secondary effect is contraceptive, it should not come under the normal prohibition. This whole issue is under, rather leisurely, consideration in Rome. Meanwhile serodiscordant marriages have either to abstain, risk infection, or be in bad conscience. Unless they take the view that the law is uncertain, and follow the established moral principle that uncertain laws do not bind. But don’t hold your breath waiting for a Roman decision. If the theologians’ view were accepted it would eventually drive a coach and horses through the unqualified rule of Humanae Vitae.

  15. Horace says:

    To borrow a phrase from Terry Wogan “Is it me?”

    About the use of condoms; my point was that prophylactic condom use was known long before AIDS.

    Apropos “double effect”, I have already said that the great difficulty about this argument is precisely that of establishing that the act itself is either good or neutral.
    Quentin suggests that “If the theologians’ view were accepted it would eventually drive a coach and horses through the unqualified rule of Humanae Vitae.”

    Is that really so?
    Lawful Therapeutic Means
    15. On the other hand, the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever. (19)

    If this statement had simply read ‘ necessary to prevent or cure bodily diseases’ – there would be no problem. To change it at this stage would perhaps be a PR disaster but I cannot help feeling that if the situation had been thought of (and considered to be important) at the time then it would not have distorted the message of Humanae Vitae at all.

  16. Iona says:

    Ah yes, I remember that paragraph now. It was taken to refer to the contraceptive pill, and covered those cases where the pill was prescribed to regulate irregular or painful periods. Somebody commented that it was quite astonishing the number of French women who suddenly found that their irregular periods needed regulating (why French, specifically, I don’t know. And there must have been more Catholics in France at that time than now).

  17. Yes, Iona, I remember the time well. In fact it was the advent of the pill which triggered the Papal Commission.
    Horace asks why accepting condoms in serodiscordant marriage would eventually drive a coach and horses through HV. First of all, if using the condom as a prophylactic were accepted, it would follow that it could also be used to protect against other sexually transmitted diseases. And who can ever be absolutely certain that disease is not present, even in apparently the best of marriages?
    Second, HV says any use of artificial contraception whatsoever (and the whatsoever is italicised in the official text) would need to be amended.
    Thirdly the Church has traditionally based its argument on the physical nature of the act. It is constructed (by God) to be open to reproduction. To use it in a form in which it is closed to reproduction is a perversion of nature even when conception is for other reasons impossible. Possibly an ingenious theologian could find a formula for squaring this, but by then the thinness of the argument, already seen as too thin my many, would make it hard to sustain. Besides, why would it not be prophylactic to protect one’s wife from a pregnancy which was dangerous to her, or unreasonably damaging to the family?
    All in all, I think HV would end up as being a dead letter, just as the Church’s rulings against usury are now of merely historical interest.

  18. tim says:

    Quentin, I’m not following you – this is probably my fault, or could it be because, like the Pope, you are using words capable of being misunderstood? Are you saying that the Lancet slur was justified?

    In this affair, we expect the Pope to get the theology right, and the Lancet to get the science right. I don’t know whether the Pope knew of the article that we are all now so enthusiastically citing – maybe he did. The article is plausible but we cannot be sure that it won’t shortly be followed by another publication convincingly suggesting the opposite. The Pope is right to base what he tells us first on the Catholic faith which it is his task to teach – rather than on possibly ephemeral scientific results. But the Lancet should be up to date with the latest results, and fails in scientific objectivity if it ignores them because they don’t fit its preconceived ideas.

  19. Tim, sorry if I didn’t make myself clear. Basically the Pope was speaking in terms of empirical experience. That is why I suggested earlier in this exchange that he would have saved trouble if he had made this clearer. Of course he can’t pontificate on scientific matters; its a question of evidence. But the Lancet took it as an irresponsible use of Catholic doctrine. This was the slur because it should have checked the evidence. Although the Edward Green paper is very recent, the facts are well known to anyone who has studied epidemic Aids (which is quite different from the pockets of Aids in the Western world). I see the Lancet as being guilty of “aggressive” secularism” – shooting from the hip when they find an opportunity to attack a religious figure. This is not the business of a professional journal. We are going to see more and more of this – which is one reason why I am glad of Vin Nichols election. He is pretty direct.

  20. tim says:

    Many thanks, Quentin, I’m much clearer now!

  21. James H. says:

    To Claret, on 28 Mar: giving the OK to condom use would make no difference at all in southern Africa.
    I grew up in South Africa, and can safely say that Catholics make up (finger-in-the-air) around 5% of the population. The biggest denomination is Zion Christian Church (an African variation), followed by good ol’ C of E, Methodists, Afrikaans-speaking churches, and assorted Protestantisms. Similar figures apply to Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Botswana and Zambia. Does the list sound familiar?
    No coincidence, then, that the countries where Catholicism is weakest are also those where HIV rates are the highest.
    People who say the Pope could stop AIDS by OK-ing condoms just make my teeth itch!

  22. Malteser says:


    I’m not a moral theologian but I am very dubious about your assertion that the sin of sexual contact outside marriage is compounded if one does not use ‘protection’.

    I would have thought just the opposite. Where sexual activity without ‘protection’ takes place outside marriage, it is not the act itself that is sinful – it is the fact that it occurs outside marriage. On the other hand, where sexual activity occurs outside marriage and ‘protection’ is used, both the act itself and its extra-marital context are sinful; in other words, two sins are committed.

    That being the case, it follows that the distribution of condoms for use outside marriage would be intrinsically wrong, and contrary to Church teaching. Consequently, the Pope would be well within his rights to condemn it on moral grounds.

    Far from being a PR disaster, this approach would help to reinforce the Church’s status as the only alternative to secularism’s moral relativism; and if it infuriates a few secular liberals in the western media as well, so much the better.

  23. Malteser, You know I am going to disagree with you. So here goes:

    You make no claim to be a moral theologian, neither do I. But I quote you a brief passage from an exchange between two senior moral theologians who are debating (and disagreeing) on the question of using condoms in a marriage where one partner is infected.

    “He (Rev. Martin Rhonheimer) agrees with the Church’s position that campaigns to promote condom use are not helpful for the future of human society. But he concludes that the Church cannot possibly teach that people engaged in immoral lifestyles should not use condoms. I (Rev. Benedict Guevin) fully concur with Rhonheimer’s position and have adopted a similar stance with people who are unwilling to entertain the idea of abstinence or fidelity.”

    So, in the matter of condom use outside marriage, these theologians – though opposed on other questions – are clear that the Church has no teaching in the matter. Indeed it could hardly be otherwise as a study of Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae will show that the current prohibition exists only in the context marrage.

    But I do not feel the need for such authoritative support. Were I to be HIV positive and were I about to commit fornication with a partner, however willing, I would regard it as a seriously evil act to risk giving her a fatal infection by failing to use a condom. It’s as plain as a pikestaff to me, and I find it difficult even to understand how anyone could think otherwise.

    Anyone who would like to read the whole Rhonheimer/Guevin exchange may find it at

  24. Malteser says:


    Thanks for your response.

    I cannot see how those two theologians can be correct. If the Church teaches that the use of ‘protection’ is wrong within marriage, how can it be acceptable outside marriage? That simply makes no logical sense – never mind moral sense. If the Church has not made this point explicit it can only be because it follows logically from its teaching on sexuality within marriage, and is therefore unnecessary, rather than because the sittuation is different in the case of unmarried persons.

    By analogy, it would be ridiculous to say that the Geneva Convention only regulates the conduct of legal wars, and that there is therefore no prohibition on the bombing of civilians in the course of an illegal invasion of another country.

  25. Malteser,
    I have a nightmare picture of the tabloid headlines: “Pope forbids condoms for unmarried teenagers”. Fortunately it will never happen.
    The encyclical to which I referred (and which in this regard was repeated verbatim in Humanae Virtae) is called Casti Connubii which is translated in the CTS edition as Christian Marriage. And the arguments in both encyclicals are confined to this context. And the Catechism follow the same line.
    How unfair of the Church to oblige us to make our own decision on this question about unmarried sex! We actually have to use our own moral faculties instead of applying to the rulebook. And some of us are unused to doing so. But in the end the question is a simple one:
    Which is more loving: to fornicate while protecting one’s partner from the most severe consequences or to fornicate allowing one’s partner to be exposed to severe consequences?
    I think it’s a no-brainer.

  26. Malteser says:


    Perhaps I have no brain but I’m not convinced!

    It just seems to me that we have to follow the argument through to its logical conclusion, and we certainly shouldn’t be influenced by tabloid headlines.

    If the Church teaches that it is wrong for married couples to use contraception – even if it means exposing each other to ‘severe consequences’ – it seems to me that it must be equally wrong for unmarried persons to do so.

    Anyway, it looks like we shall have to agree to differ on this one!

  27. Malteser, of course we we won’t agree. That’s half the fun of a blog.

    I don’t see where logic comes in here. The first premise of your syllogism is:
    Artificial contraception is condemned because it violates the nature of the fundamental sexual expression marriage.

    Your conclusion is: Therefore artificial contraception outside marriage is wrong.

    So you need the missing, second, premise to make that conclusion valid. What would that second premise be?
    In its absence you cannot speak of logic.

    Your second paragraph is interesting. It would always be wrong to endanger the life of another person, unless that is the lesser evil. Therefore, under normal circumstances, an HIV infected person must abstain from sexual intercourse with his or her spouse, presumably on an indefinite basis.

    However many eminent prelates and theologians believe that this question should be revisited. The main ground proposed is that the intention is not contraceptive but prophylactic, and that the moral status of an act is set by its intention. If you want to study the whole argument, use the link I give in my post of 10 April.

    If you want a few names in support of this re-examination try Jean-Marie Lustiger, the former archbishop of Paris; Italian Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the former archbishop of Milan; Swiss Cardinal George Cottier, theologian of the Papal Household under John Paul II; Cardinal Godfriend Danneels of Belgium; and Cardinal Cormac Muphy-O’Connor of Westminster.

    The matter is reputed to be under study in Rome, but no conclusion appears to be forthcoming. So I infer that the law is uncertain, and an uncertain law does not bind.

  28. Malteser says:

    Quentin,Yes, all good fun!Perhaps I do need to revise my argument. How does this grab you?One of the main arguments behind the Church’s prohibition of contraception is that it encourages man to lose respect for woman to the extent that she becomes merely the instrument of his selfish enjoyment. In other words, by separating out the unitive and procreative aspects, sexuality itself is degraded.
    Now of course this teaching assumes that the partners are married, but it seems reasonable to assume that this concern should (and does) apply equally to the unmarried woman; indeed, it would be strange – and rather callous – if it did not. In other words, why should only married women be protected from the pernicious mind-set that contraception induces in men?I’m a bit dubious about basing morality on ‘intentions’ (didn’t you write an article on this in the Catholic Herald?). On that basis, abortion might be justifiable where the intention is to preserve the mental health of the mother – or even where there is concern for the future quality of life of the child.I had heard that the matter was under discussion but my understanding was that, at present, the Church does not permit contraceptives to be used, even where the intention is to prevent infection, and that this is the clear, current teaching. I’m sure that there are bishops and theologians who would like to see a change, but, equally, I’m sure there are plenty who do not.       

  29. Horace says:

    This is an interesting quote which I came across more or less by accident, but seems relevant here.

    An interview with Cardinal Turcotte

    «Comme si le pape avait dit qu’il ne fallait pas utiliser les condoms. Voyons donc! Quand quelqu’un a le sida, c’est son devoir de protéger les personnes avec lesquelles il a des relations.»


    “As if the pope had said that condoms should not be used. This is ridiculous! When someone has AIDS, it is his or her responsibility to protect the people with whom he or she has intercourse.”

  30. marco says:

    Navigating on the internet and searching for some interesting topics in web sites, yesterday I came across your blog about AIDS/condom matter. I quickly had a look at numerous and different contributes, but surprisingly I found none taking into account the probabilistic condom failure factor. Quenten in heading contribute reported an 80-90% efficacy in infection rate reduction by consistently and correctly using condom.
    I realize that this is a reduction of infection’s speed. Condom works as mechanical barrier and, as far as I read, it’s said to fail in the 2 or 3 % of cases, when correctly and consistently used. Consequently we have to consider that for 1 in 40 sexual contacts its barrier’s property fails and the infection occurs or can occur. In the first case we have to consider that for young people 40 contacts is a matter of months, not years. Then we conclude that, in the case of a couple of whom one is infected, condom use can delay ( how much months?), but not avoid the infection or its substantial possibility. For this reason I think that the main human loving act must be authentic loving act and, if there is infection’s possibility , one should prefer abstinence, just for the sake of the life of his/her partner. So I don’t see why the Church should support the condom option, when its efficacy is only in order to delay ( and how much?) the infection, but not to assure the partner’s life.

  31. Marco is certainly right to point out that risk of cross infection with HIV can never be entirely eliminated, and that this does raise an issue of moral responsibility. But it is important to measure that risk with care. Using longitudinal studies (that is, studies over a period of time) it was established that serodiscordant couples who never used condoms had cross infection at the rate of 6.7 times per 100 person years, while serodiscordant couples who always used condoms had cross infection at the rate of 0.9 (WHO Report). It is easy to confuse the relative safety of condoms compared with no condoms with the direct safety of condom use itself.

    It is possible to argue that the damage done to the marriage by permanent abstention is outweighed by the smallness of the risk – particular in the light of much improved drug treatment available.

    While these figures reflect real life experience, we must take into account the availability of condoms, their omission on occasion, their condition and their incorrect usage. All of these are likely to be more important factors in sub-Saharan Africa than in the suburban West. Similarly, as Marco notes, they are always likely to be a big factor in casual and promiscuous sex, wherever it takes place.

  32. Iona says:

    As regards Quentin’s point about the use of condoms in sub-
    saharan Africa, I believe I have heard that the conditions in much of Africa (hot and humid) are such as to cause latex rubber to deteriorate in a matter of hours; hence condoms have to be kept in a fridge until used; and the number of Africans with access to fridges and a reliable electricity supply to keep them running is probably fairly limited.

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