At the UN conference on HIV/Aids, which closed on June 10, the Vatican’s insistence that condoms were not the answer was received with jeers. In this column I propose to give you some information in question-and-answer form. It is up to you to decide whether the Vatican should have been jeered or cheered.
My views are only summary; please look to the sources I quote at the foot for more information.
Are condoms an effective prophylactic against the transmission of HIV?
Yes, potentially very effective. Of course this requires condoms in good condition, correctly used and always used. Under these conditions the rate of cross infection is less than one in 100 woman years. (A woman year is one female in an active sexual partnership for one year.)
Suggestions that cross infection can take place because the virus is smaller than the natural pores of the condom are based on a misunderstanding of the way the virus travels. Any suggestion that this non-fact is true is highly irresponsible. When the source is an official of the Church it is also a source of scandal. Read pp. 14&7 in this PDF file.(1)
Does the widespread issue of condoms in areas of epidemic Aids control and reduce infections?
No. Condoms have been distributed with great vigour in such situations. There is no evidence that a reduction in the rate of infection takes place.
Edward C Green, former director of the Aids Prevention Research Project at the Harvard Centre for Population and Development Studies, says: “There is a consistent association shown by our best studies, including the US-funded ‘Demographic Health Surveys’, between greater availability and use of condoms and higher (not lower) HIV-infection rates. This may be due in part to a phenomenon known as risk compensation, meaning that when one uses a risk-reduction ‘technology’ such as condoms, one often loses the benefit (reduction in risk) by ‘compensating’ or taking greater chances than one would take without the risk-reduction technology… The best and latest empirical evidence indeed 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).” A fuller account of Dr Green’s views can be found at (2)
So do condoms have no part whatsoever to play?
They can play a part in certain areas. For example, in the sex trade. Read the pdf file “HIV Protection from the Perspective of a Faith-based Agency at (3). It describes the multi-layered ABC approach to the subject.
But surely if condoms are intrinsically evil they would not be justified for sex workers?
The Church’s prohibition on barrier contraceptives only considers their use in marriage. She has no reason to comment on their morality outside marriage, and has not done so.
How does that help a lawfully married couple, one of whom carries the infection?
It doesn’t. There are two views here. In brief, one view argues that in such a case the prohibition does not apply because the condom is being used as a protection against disease and not as a contraceptive. The other argues that the nature of the marriage act has nevertheless been perverted by the physical barrier, irrespective of the intention of the couple. Both views have supporters in high office in the Church. A debate between two senior theologians can be found as a pdf file at (4).
Why does the Holy See not resolve this difference of approach?
The Vatican announced in February 2010 that the study of this question had ceased. A decision is no longer in prospect. The source I quote here discusses possible reasons why a decision is not forthcoming. (5)
If the law is uncertain does not the principle: uncertain law does not bind, apply?
That principle is correct; it refers only to solidly probable opinion. Again, there is disagreement between the experts. But I am not a moral theologian so I have had to make up my own mind on its application. You will have to do the same. (6)
Will not what you have written be too sophisticated for those most affected?
“It’s the same the whole world over. It’s the poor what gets the blame. It’s the rich what gets the pleasure. Ain’t it all a bleeding shame?”
You have only written about the question of Aids prevention. Does not the Church make a large contribution to the work of managing this epidemic?
Most certainly. The extent of its work is heroic A recent description of this, by Archbishop Tomaso, (The International Role of the Catholic Church in the Prevention and Treatment of HIV/AIDS.) can be found at (7).
If you disagree with what I have written here, or wish to comment on or supplement it, please place your contribution here. Your required email address is confidential. As usual, this is my opinion and not necessarily that of The Catholic Herald.
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(6) Fertility and Gender, Anscombe Bioethics Centre (2011) p.166. (This is not an internet link. The book is not yet widely available, so you may have to take my word for it.)