Catholics occasionally become stymied over whether or not condom use could ever be considered morally right. Catholic moral theologians, however, have been nearly unanimous in arguing not only that the Catholic tradition is not per se opposed to their use for disease prevention, but that Roman Catholic principles actually render condom use morally licit under some circumstances.

1. Is there any Catholic teaching on condoms?

No. Catholic teaching prohibits contraceptive activity. Through the encyclicals "Humanae Vitae," and before that, "Casti Connubii," popes have taught that contraception is always wrong. For this reason anyone intending contraception, e.g. through withdrawal, condom use, IUD, or the pill, is always engaged in morally wrong activity, regardless of circumstances. This does not mean that the Pill or condoms themselves were or are condemned, however. For instance, if a woman uses the birth control pill to regulate her menstrual cycle or dysfunctional uterine bleeding, that use of the Pill is morally permitted even though it may render her at least temporarily sterile. Just as the birth control pill can be used for purposes other than contraception, the condom can be used for non-contraceptive purposes. For example, consider a married couple, in which the husband is HIV-infected and the wife is post-menopausal. Condom use in this marriage would not be for contraceptive purposes, but rather to prevent a fatal infection from being transmitted from husband to wife. 2. What about condom use between spouses when one is infected and the wife is not yet post-menopausal? Here, moral theologians turn to the principle of double effect. Since the 17th century, the principle of double effect has meant that an action with two effects, one right and one wrong, can be performed when the following four conditions are met: a. The object of the action is not intrinsically wrong.
b. The wrong effect, though foreseen, cannot be intended.
c. The wrong effect cannot be the means to the right effect.
d. There must be proportionate reason for allowing the wrong effect to occur. A good illustratiion is the issue of administering high doses of painkillers to a terminally ill patient who is in pain. This issue has been widely cited and discussed, and its solution was sanctioned by Pope Pius XII. When we apply the principle of double effect, we see that the object of the activity, that is, administering pain relief to a terminally ill patient, is in itself morally right, but it has two effects: the relief of the patient's pain and the possible hastening of the patient's death through its unintended suppression of respiration, We may foresee the patient's possible death, but we cannot intend it. Similarly, we cannot kill the patient to relieve the patient's pain. The principle helps us to see that we can provide the patient with adequate pain relief, so long as we solely intend that effect and not the patient's death. The Vatican disagrees.
Read more on page 2 >>

Just as morphine can be used to kill a patient or to alleviate a patient's pain, similarly a condom in a marriage in which one partner is infected and the wife is not post-menopausal can be used to prevent the transmission of HIV or to avoid a pregnancy. As many moral theologians have argued, this is a case of double effect. Though the condom's contraceptive effect can be foreseen, it is not intended. And just as a patient in pain is not denied pain relief in light of a foreseen but unintended effect, neither should a married couple be denied AIDS protection in consummating their conjugal love, even though the protection could be contraceptive.

In an interview in 2000 with the Catholic News Service, Franciscan Father Maurizio Faggioni, who is a physician, a professor of moral theology at Rome's Alphonsianum university and a consultant to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said that condom use might be justified when one of the spouses has AIDS, as long as the "exclusive and primary" intent was to defend the healthy partner from infection and not to prevent pregnancy. "This is a classic application of the Catholic moral principle of double effect," he said. 3. Does every moral theologian agree with this position? No. In a rather astonishing press release after the World AIDS Day meeting in December 2000, some other Vatican officials stated categorically that condoms could never be morally allowed. On the subject of married couples, Camillian Father Felice Ruffini, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, said that within a marriage, even in which one partner is infected with HIV, condom use is always prohibited: "Certainly it's difficult, it's tough to be able to maintain matrimonial chastity in this case," but moralists cannot craft "an exception to Christ's law." Also at the meeting, Bonifacio Honings of the Discalced Carmelites, a Dutch moral theologian for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said an HIV-infected husband had no right to request sexual relations from his healthy wife. Honinga added that the wife could choose to consent to sexual relations "to avoid a worse thing--her husband's becoming intractable, or the husband being unfaithful to her, etc," Honings's remarks are very disturbing. He effectively argues that the wife's life is less important than her husband becoming "intractable."
We have to ask: Why could this group of Vatican officials not recognize the validity of the previously described applications of traditional principles? We also have to note--as did Dr. Dorothy Logee in reflecting on her own marriage with her husband, who became HIV-infected in the course of caring for patients in Africa--that in such marriages, the need for sexual intimacy is like other marriages where one partner has a life-threatening disease. The need and desire to express love through sexual intimacy may be even greater than when both partners are healthy.

Finally, mercy is a critically important guiding principle in our Catholic tradition. Mercy is the willingness to enter into the chaos of another, as the Good Samaritan did. The gospels make it clear that mercy is the standard by which we will all be judged. In this time of a worldwide AIDS epidemic, one could argue that this is the principle which should be our guiding beacon.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad