Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Pope Says Condoms Are a Lesser Evil Than Spreading HIV to New Victims

On 11/21/10 various news organizations carried the stunning news that Pope Benedict XVI, as part of a book-length interview with a German reporter, had done a major about-face in his position on the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS.

Only last year Benedict had raised a storm of controversy, and drawn nearly unanimous criticism from global health organizations and Western European governments, for saying that condoms did nothing to contain the spread of AIDs and that they in fact worsened it.

The 11/21 reports brought the news that the pope now has said, as MSNBC put it, "that condom use by people such as male prostitutes was a lesser evil since it indicated they were taking a step toward a more moral and responsible sexuality by aiming to protect their partner from a deadly infection."

That was followed two days later by a Vatican clarification that the pope also meant his remarks to apply to women who have HIV--even if their use of condoms also prevented a pregnancy.

In this instance, it must be said that the secular media have done a much better job of grasping and communicating how much of a "game-changer" Benedict's new position is. The Catholic press for the most part has been all too eager to assure lay Catholics that the pope is not back-tracking on Pope Paul VI's ban on "artificial contraception." What I have not seen from Catholic analysts yet is the recognition that by allowing for situations where use of condoms is less of an evil than not using them, Benedict opens the door to more exceptions than controlling HIV transmission.

For once the primary consideration shifts from use of condoms to prevent pregnancy to use of condoms to responsibly protect the health of ones sex partner, aren't there other situations where using a condom might be more responsible than not doing so? I'm thinking, for example, of situations where a woman has been advised by her physician that having more children would endanger her physical health. If the church cannot see its way clear to allow that woman to use the pill to prevent another pregnancy, couldn't it at least use Benedict's logic to say that it would be more responsible for her partner to use a condom, even to prevent pregnancy, than to endanger her life because he did not use one?

I think over time it will be discovered that Benedict has opened up several questions along these lines, especially for situations where HIV is not the threat a partner is trying to avoid, but where some other life-threatening condition is.

That is the kind of nuanced thinking on these matters that Catholic moral theologians have been urging for decades. I think it may be the most helpful development in forty years that a pope has finally grasped what they've been saying and has had the courage to agree with it. I hope Catholic analysts will get around to saying so, and soon.

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