Jeers or Cheers for the Vatican?

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.

Copy and paste the link below into your browser.

(1) http://www.niaid.nih.gov/about/organization/dmid/documents/condomreport.pdf
(2) http://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/03/002-aids-and-the-churches-getting-the-story-right-27
(3) http://www.cafod.org.uk/var/storage/original/application/phpIE2XiU.pdf
(4) http://americanpapist.com/ncbq/562030k671p51440.pdf
(5) http://www.politicsdaily.com/2010/02/25/condemn-condoms-vatican-takes-a-pass/
(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.)
(7) http://www.zenit.org/article-32826?l=english

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Jeers or Cheers for the Vatican?

  1. James H says:

    Thanks for this, Quentin. It’s definitely the most lucid and least ideologically-laden post I’ve ever seen on the subject.

    The problem is, there are (usually) responsible people with public platforms in major newspapers who peddle drivel about the church’s position all the time. Their readers pick it up, believe it unquestioningly, and come away from the experience knowing less (or knowing more untruth) than they did before. Polly Toynbee and Christopher Hitchens have actively dumbed-down their readers.

    If it was simple ignorance, it might be excusable, but they obviously hadn’t done any research; they’re not interested in knowing the facts. It’s simply a disgrace. It feeds the ideologically pure, fact-free policy of AIDS prevention in Africa.

    I’ve always wanted to catch someone frothing about how ‘the Pope is responsible for the Death of Millions!’ and ask him, ‘Why should people in southern Africa care what the Pope says about anything?’

    Africa has had nearly 30 years of being told that condoms are the only answer. Rural clinics might not have clean hypodermic needles, bandages, diarrhea remedies or malaria medication, but their shelves groan under the weight of condoms that have been left out in the sun while in transit and are therefore useless. How high does the body count have to get before the first world admits they were wrong?

  2. claret says:

    While it is true that condoms are not the answer to the spread of HIV it still remains that they do have a part to play in any reduction policy and it would seem that those within the church who are engaged at the ‘sharp end’ of the fight against the spread of this dread disease acknowledge this fact.
    Of course too much reliance is placed on what appears to be an easy solution to a many faceted problem and when looking around for someone else to blame for the failure of something that is so complex then the Catholic Church is an easy and recognisable target to blame and one that many are only too ready to jump om the bandwagon of such blame despite not having any real undertsanding of the issues in their entireity.
    However it surely has to be acknowledged that the Church’s handling of this whole issue is , to say the least, clumsy.
    It has consistently failed, in my view, to offer any kind of cogent explanation as to why artificial birth control is an intrinsic evil compared to other sorts of birth control that are not so and therefore are ‘approved.’ It has lamentably failed to address the concerns of those who want to keep to the teachings of the church but recognise that families cost money and that to have children that cannot be adequately cared for financially, so as to give them an reasonable quality of life, is also morally wrong.
    The Church turns its blind eye to the obvious fact that the sight of any Sunday congregation clearly illustrates that married couples are making the decision for themselves to use artifical birth control as a way of limiting their families, and in so doing are finding themselves at odds with Church teaching but are taking any risk to their mortal souls as a price worth taking. I have yet to hear a single sermon, and indeed have never sought to make one, where artificial birth control is condemned ( or even mentioned, except perhaps in the vaguest of terms, and even then it is a once in a lifetime utterance!)
    Neither can we escape the nonsense of the Pope’s hamfisted and bewildering explanation of when a condom might be legitimatley used by an habitual prostitute but not by a practising married Christian!

  3. st.joseph says:

    Because the intention is not to become pregnant does not alter the fact that one can! The discussion between Rev Guevin and Rev Rhonheimer although laid out quite explicitly,did go around the house sa bit.
    Mention was made at the end as to the use of Natural Family Planning, then of course it would not be a contraceptive, as the woman would be infertile
    Using a anovulant ,(as that is not always certain) for therpuetic reasons would not be acceptable as if conception takes place, the womb will become agressive and causes an early abortion
    Sterile couples will not be contracepting if past childbearing age.
    They speak about a women who has a cancerous ovary removed making her sterile. They are forgetting that there are two ovaries which the egg grows alternativley so that can not be a reason to use a condom. They speak about the unitive act of intercourse not reaching it final end mention was made of the sperm not reaching the womb. It doesnt if one is infertile anyway. For much of the cycle the cervix is closed to block the passage of sperm. The sperms are therefore trapped in the vagina which is acidic and destroys them. This is the infertile phase.
    Thet spoke about it being a heroic reason for a women to use a condom to prevent her husband masturbating.
    I believe there will be a risk of pregnancy and a baby born HIV positive.
    I have said in past posts that in cases of married couples using condoms prevening Aids in my mind would be permissable when used in the infertile period.They will be suffering enough carrying the disease.
    Claret you are right when you say there is no mention of artificial birth control.
    I challeneged a Bishop once, his reply to me was that ‘it is not the core of his belief and it is not mentioned in the Creed ‘!!!!!
    I could not understand what you meant by artificial birth control and other sorts of birth control.
    N F P is is not considered as a birth control as Family Planning of which is acceptable to a couple who wants to regulate their family as to what they can cope with. I know a family who cope with 12 others may not,
    A women said to me the other day that she would not marry a catholic years ago because she didnt want 7 or 8 children! Non Catholics do not know about it and catholics dont tell them. How sad
    that the Church does not educate couples in it
    .

  4. st.joseph says:

    Because the intention is not to become pregnant does not alter the fact that one can! The discussion between Rev Guevin and Rev Rhonheimer although laid out quite explicitly,did go around the house a bit.
    Mention was made at the end as to the use of Natural Family Planning, then of course it would not be a contraceptive, as the woman would be infertile
    Using a anovulant ,(as that is not always certain) for therpuetic reasons would not be acceptable as if conception takes place, the womb will become agressive and causes an early abortion
    Sterile couples will not be contracepting if past childbearing age.
    They speak about a women who has a cancerous ovary removed making her sterile. They are
    forgetting that there are two ovaries which the egg grows alternativley so that can not be a reason to use a condom. They speak about the unitive act of intercourse not reaching its final end ,mention was made of the sperm not reaching the womb. It doesn’t if one is infertile anyway. For much of the cycle the cervix is closed to block the passage of sperm. The sperms are therefore trapped in the vagina which is acidic and destroys them. This is the infertile phase.
    They spoke about it being a heroic reason for a women to use a condom to prevent her husband masturbating.
    I believe there will be a risk of pregnancy and a baby born HIV positive.
    I have said in past posts that in cases of married couples using condoms preventing Aids in my mind would be permissable when used in the infertile period.They will be suffering enough carrying the disease.
    Claret you are right when you say there is no mention of artificial birth control.
    I challeneged a Bishop once, his reply to me was that ‘It is not the core of his belief and it is not mentioned in the Creed ‘!!!!!
    I could not understand what you meant by artificial birth control and other sorts of birth control.
    N F P is is not considered as a birth control ,as Family Planning , which is acceptable to a couple who wants to regulate their family as to what they can cope with. I know a family who cope with 12 ,others may not,
    A women said to me the other day that she would not marry a catholic years ago because she didnt want 7 or 8 children! Non Catholics do not know about it and catholics dont tell them. How sad that the Church does not educate couples in it
    We are supposed to preach the Gospel to each corner of the earth, how come the West is so slow to learn!
    .

  5. st.joseph says:

    The above post is sent twice with the second altering spelling and a little extra on the end.

  6. Horace says:

    With regard to Quentin’s penultimate question:-
    “Will not what you have written be too sophisticated for those most affected?”
    There is an Irish saying which goes as follows:- Concerned mother to her daughter, “Be good”; “If you can’t be good, be careful.”; “If you can’t be careful, keep your legs crossed!”.

    More seriously;
    With regard to the previous three questions, it is very sad that the Church feels unable to formulate definitive teaching on this subject. You say:- ” . . I have had to make up my own mind on its application. You will have to do the same.”
    Effectively this means that any couple who find themselves in the unenviable position of seriodiscordance will have to find a spiritual advisor and discuss the matter privately with him (or her).
    There are two references which may be helpful because they outline (inter alia) modern approaches to the treatment of AIDS.
    http://www.economist.com/node/18774722 (The end of AIDS?)
    http://www.economist.com/node/18772276 (AIDS The 30 years war.)

    For the rest:-
    Qu 1 – as you say “Yes”.
    Qu 2 – ” “No”
    Qu 3 – difficult – I don’t know enough to comment properly.
    Qu 4 – Of course condoms are not “intrinsically evil”. Remember that Pope Benedict did, in fact, comment (perhaps unwisely) on this subject.

  7. st.joseph says:

    Horace thank you for that information.
    The cost of finding a cure for Aids is massive, and of course it is necessary.
    I agree with the Church that promiscuity will not be cured with the use of condoms or the cure of Aids.
    I am not unsympathetic with those who have Aids as we dont or I should say I dont know who catches the virus through the person guilty of giving it through other sources than sexual activity.
    I look at it that those who are responsible for the spread of it will have to answer for that.
    On the radio the other morning a lady was speaking about elderly people who drink wine, and if they fell and broke their hip it would cost the NHS . I came in half way through-so did not get the full story.
    We are speaking about smoking for a long time and those who smoke cost the NHS.
    We could take it further with Sport, Mountain Climbers etc.
    It is a BIG Question when it come to promiscuity.
    I am with the Vatican on this.

  8. st.joseph says:

    Why should the Vatican comment on this’ We all know the answer and what the Church teaches.
    The problem I have with all this is that there is never- never a mention of the infertile period.
    To me that is an important issue and would save a lot of questions .Also no one on the blog gives it any mention in these discussions. I am bewildered at times.
    It is common sense.

  9. claret says:

    The congregation that I am involved with is about 500 regulars many of course are not of a child bearing age but of them all that are I can only call to mind just one family of four schoolage children. All other families of school age children are below that number. I would anticipate that this kind of ratio is common to most catholic congregations in the UK.
    It is therefore self evident that while a small number may avail themselves of NFP techniques ( I cannot think of a single parish that openly advocates such courses,) and a very few have large families which would indicate a faithfulness to the Church, that the majority of catholic families in this country are practising artificial birth control and therefore are at odds with Church teaching but no-one tells them this from the pulpit.
    In the meantime there is a widespread belief from outside the Church that catholics are adverse to artifical birth control and are therefore to blame for the spread of HIV/Aids.
    We have saddled oursdelves with a policy that is never promoted ( in the UK, and i assume world wide,) but one that we have effectively abandoned but without ever saying so and thereby leaving many very faithful catholics bewildered or prepared to go their own way and make their own decisions on this issue. That decison would appear to overwhelmingly to ignore Church teaching but to keep quiet about it.

  10. st.joseph says:

    Claret, because people have small families is not pertinent to the fact that they are using artificial contraception. It does work. People who have large families are to be admired if that is what they choose to do Not everyone can cope or afford it.Those who do are Blessed by the Lord.
    The contraceptive pill is an abortifacant the consequences are worse than the contraceptive effect.
    Do we hear that from the pulpit. What is the difference from conception to birth. Being adverse to articial birth control and obedience to the church is a little hypocritical-when they are not obedient to the church by being promiscuous.
    Marriage Care dont teach it. I wanted to give some leaflets when a parish was having a meeting. No comment I will make on that. Marriage Care were advertising for voluntary workers a couple of years back in the catholic paper. I offered my services – Was told they dont do that , but I can make the tea, I have said this before. Our Lady must be very concerned about this. We need to console Her.

  11. Quentin says:

    In conjunction with your thoughts, Claret, it is interesting to see the total fertility rate of some specimen countries. 2009 figures

    UK 2.0
    Italy 1.4
    Malta 1.4
    Ireland 2.1
    Interesting that the so called Catholic countries don’t do so well. And given the shock Ireland has had over the abuse crisis, it will interesting to see if this changes.

  12. st.joseph says:

    We have E W T N showing NFP continually for over a year now so every opportunity for the Bishops and Priests to promote this.
    Archbishop Nicholls was interviewed on T.V after the Holy Fathers visit,
    The Churches teaching on contraception was mentioned.
    Did he mention Natural Family Planning No he didn’t.
    I get the feeling that they are so wound up with Humanae Vitea that they dont want to admit that
    they did not support it at the time.
    I am not speaking behind their back- I have written to them all.
    I did have some positive letters back but half ignored it.
    As I have said before perhaps the wives of the Anglian priests coming over to the Church will speak about it, But I will hold my breath
    There are some teachers being trained in Birmingham. But if no one wants to be taught we cant help it. There is some teaching given on the Web Site, by experienced teachers. The Bishops could advertise that. They dont have to teach it themselves or priests that is not their job so to speak. But they do have a duty to advise couples. Instead of advising about meat free Fridays !! or Holy days back to before.
    Sorry I just like letting off steam now and again. I did teach a lot of Green people and catholics and
    non-catholics in my 30 years teaching.But it is needed to be made more available.

  13. st.joseph says:

    And another thing.
    For all the accusations against the Church from RMBlaber, John Candido and Superview. Who apparently in previous posts have spoken against abortion.
    It is a pity they do not see the good side of the teachings of the Church instead of criticising it.
    And maybe praise some of it!!Their voice could be useful on NFP! with less abortifacants.

  14. claret says:

    St. Joseph is to be admired for her robust promotion of NFP but as she seems to admit it is a means of family planning that is ( sadly) little used and seldom promoted. I have to take issue though with the assertion that small families are not indicative of the use of artificial contraception. The evidence is all around us that family planning by use of contraception is now widespread in society and Catholics in this country , and from Quentin’s ‘birth stats’ other catholic countries too, are not any different to the population at large when it comes to the size of families.
    It also needs to be recognised that sex can be seen by many as a more pleasurable experience if the element of pregnancy is removed from it, and this applies equally within a faithful marriage.
    There is also the unknown element of the issue of what at one time were called ‘mixed marriages.’ In this country it is now unusual to have a marriage in Church between two catholics.. The non catholic half of the marriage would not have any constraints on the use of artificial methods of birth control and the Catholic half would be under great pressure to use contraception too.
    But I come back to my main point that all the evidence indicates that the Church’s teachings about birth control falls largely on deaf ears, or it would do if it was ever spoken about!

  15. st.joseph says:

    In the event of having my comment removed for using NFP again, but I do wish to answer Clarets comments if I may be permitted.
    First of all Claret, Fertility Awareness is not known as a tecnique but a way life, the way God planned it when he made male and female, not the churches.
    Sex seen by many as a more pleasurable experience when the element of pregnancy is removed from it.
    I agree. that is where fertility awareness comes into its own.
    It can be more pleasurable when the element of having a good conscience, and doing the Will of God.Living the way the Lord intended in accordance with the Blessed Trinity in Marriage.
    This does not only apply to Catholics but to all Christians who believe that Marriage unites them to The Trinity.It is not only the case of being obedient to Church teaching, but living in the Truth that the Lord intended.
    Catholics who marry non catholics which I did ought to make it clear their responsibilty to the Sacrament they are receiving. I can sympathise with past ignorance. But now we have an informed conscience.
    This is my last mention of NFP.

  16. John Nolan says:

    Please remember Pope Paul VI in your prayers. Excoriated by liberals for Humanae Vitae and by conservatives for his Ostpolitik and for allowing Bugnini to take a wrecking-ball to the liturgy, he died in despair and only after his death was it revealed that he habitually wore a hair shirt.

  17. claret says:

    I am not promoting in any way for anyone to go outside the teaching of the Church as St. Jospeh’s latest contribution seems to infer. I am aware of the morality of what it ( and St Jospeh )proclaims as the will of God but this whole blog is not about that but rather about how the Church transmits the message about the use of artificial birth control. The fact remains that it is ( in practice) something that is ignored to a large extent and despite my inability to lift the roofs off houses to see what the catholic occupants are getting upto in their bedrooms I am confident that artificial birth control is as widely used in catholic families , (in all good conscience?) as it is in non-catholic ones.
    Lastly if the Pope’s latest bizarre utterances on the subject are a true reflection of Church teaching it is far removed from what St. Jospeh so eloquently defends.

    • Horace says:

      Claret, is this the statement that you refer to?
      “. . . it cannot be denied that anyone who uses a condom in order to diminish the risk posed to another person is intending to reduce the evil connected with his or her immoral activity. In this sense the Holy Father points out that the use of a condom ‘with the intention of reducing the risk of infection, can be a first step in a movement towards a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality’“.
      [This is an extract from:- VATICAN CITY, 22 DEC 2010 . . . the English-language text of a Note published . . . by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.]
      The English translation leaves something to be desired but it doesn’t seem to me bizarre.

      btw I thought that this whole blog is not about – “how the Church transmits the message about the use of artificial birth control” but rather about “the UN conference on HIV/Aids”.

      I do agree, however, that artificial birth control is as widely used in catholic families, as it is in non-catholic ones. Nevertheless, with regard to your comment “It also needs to be recognised that sex can be seen by many as a more pleasurable experience if the element of pregnancy is removed from it, . . ” I was taught at school that “God made sex pleasurable because otherwise people would never bother having children” !!

  18. st.joseph says:

    Claret, I didnt think that you were promoting anyone to go outside the teaching of the Church.
    Horace if that is what you were taught at school, no wonder there is so much ignorance around.
    This will be my last post on this blog! Thank you all for your comments.

  19. Vincent says:

    st.joseph, I rather think that Horace is not the only one who was given the impression at a Catholic school that the pleasures of sex encourage people to have children. It is biologically true, even though there is much more to it than that. It is also true that throughout much of the Church’s history, and well into the 20th century, the chosen use of the safe period would have been prohibited as sinful. Sex was only for having children.

  20. Horace says:

    There is an interesting discussion on .

  21. Quentin says:

    There is an encouraging article about Aids reduction in a Zimbabwe newspaper here.
    http://www.zimdaily.com/news/2011/07/02/zimbabwe%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%9Csurprising%E2%80%9D-aids-success/

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