What do you want from this column? One of the advantages of Second Sight Blog is that I get enough feedback to make a judgment. And one topic which is popular is apologetics. This is perhaps because the media is so full of anti-Catholic propaganda that readers need information to explain matters to their friends. And others would just like the facts for their own peace of mind. A good example of this is provided by the Pope’s statement, when he visited Cameroon, that condoms are not the answer to HIV. Although he said this last March, the clamour gets louder as the Pope’s visit approaches.
That does not surprise me. If condoms are effective in preventing HIV/Aids, it must follow that an increased use of condoms will leads to a reduction in infection. Only someone as doctrinaire as the Pope or as brain-washed as a Catholic could believe otherwise. So let’s have a quiz.
1) Are condoms really effective in checking the transmission of the Aids virus in sexual congress?
2) Does the Church forbid the use of barrier contraceptives in all circumstances?
3) Is the Pope correct in saying that condoms are not the solution to the Aids epidemic in Africa?
Just pause and think about your answers before reading on.
The answer to Question 1 is yes. Several studies considered by the World Health Organisation of “always” condom users showed a transmission rate of one for every 100 person years, compared with seven for non-condom users. That is a very high level of protection.
This may raise an eyebrow. Did not Cardinal Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, say that condoms were a very unreliable protection against transmission?
Indeed he did. He simply declined to accept the established scientific evidence. That was a matter for his conscience. In addition, it is important to remember that condoms must be used correctly and invariably. They must also be of good quality and in good condition.
The answer to the second question is no. The Church’s teaching on artificial contraception is based on the total giving of oneself, and one’s faculties, in the physical expression of marriage. She makes no statement about the use of contraceptives outside marriage; and that would equally apply to homosexual acts.
This puts us into the position of having to make up our own minds. It seems clear to me that to fornicate while choosing to risk an unwanted pregnancy or the transmission of serious disease multiplies the sin as an offence against love. I am aware that some people hold that because two sins would be involved, the offence is doubled. Fortunately God is not an accountant : his criterion is not mathematics but love.
The answer to the third question is yes. The Pope’s statement was entirely in accord with the latest scientific evidence. It would have saved an enormous amount of newsprint, and – sadly – scandal, had he made this clear at the time.
The confusion arises because in Sub-Saharan Africa HIV/Aids is a pandemic. It is not confined to discrete groups where a well-motivated and dedicated campaign of condom use might have good results. It is too widespread for that.
There are some endemic difficulties in several African countries which interfere with the effectiveness of condoms. One of these is that there is a macho anti-condom culture, but more importantly there is a habit of multiple sexual partners. Edward C Green (a social anthropologist from the Harvard School of Public Health with no objection to condoms in principle) says: “These ongoing multiple concurrent sex partnerships resemble a giant, invisible web of relationships through which HIV/Aids spreads. A study in Malawi showed that even though the average number of sexual partners was only slightly over two, fully two-thirds of this population was interconnected through such networks of overlapping, ongoing relationships.” In Cameroon, where the Pope made his statement, the incidence of HIV is four times as high for women with three or more partners, compared to those with one partner. Green also notes that the enormous efforts at condom distribution over long periods of time have had no limiting effect on the spread of infection.
In fact, the only campaigns which have shown any success are those focused on the chaste sexual habits which happen to have been championed by the Catholic Church. This does not mean that condoms have no value; they have been useful in reducing infection stemming from the sex industry. But it should be noted here that the Church has had no reason to make a ruling on this – see Question 2. For the sake of completeness here I should mention that male circumcision also has a significant effect on the reduction of transmission.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) does, however, have a duty to make a ruling on the lawfulness of infected married couples using condoms, since doubts on the issue have been raised at the most senior clerical levels. It’s awkward, of course. Either it doesn’t know (and uncertain laws don’t bind); or it is not prepared to admit that the principle of deriving unconditional imperatives from the structure of human acts is faulty; or it is terrified of stating publicly that its rules are more important than human lives.
The failure to give an answer after so many years (see Vatican Notebook, February 12) raises once again the question of the use or misuse of authority. Since human life and the stability of marriage are the issues at stake here the failure to respond is a serious cause of scandal.
But you may be able to explain better than I why the CDF has neglected this question. I look forward to hearing your views on http://www.secondsightblog.com.