News feature: Condoms, cardinals and the Catholic church

Michael Carter
Published: 18 April 2005

One hundred and fifteen cardinals begin the process of electing a successor to Pope John Paul II today. As all but two of these cardinals were appointed during John Paul II’s 27 year pontificate, it is widely expected that John Paul’s successor will share his view that homosexuality is "disordered", that same-sex marriage is an "evil", and that all forms of artificial contraception are inherently sinful and are part of western society’s "culture of death". The use of a condom, even when employed to prevent the transmission of disease is a mortal sin, the highest grade of sin in the Catholic church. According to official teaching, if a Catholic uses a condom aware of the church’s position, unless they confess their sin and do penance, they put themselves outside the saving grace of the church. In other words, use a condom and go to hell.

The figure of John Paul II will also loom large over his successor. Mourners in St Peter’s Square started a cult of John Paul II. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (a conservative, tipped by many as a likely candidate to become the next Pope), in a requiem mass for the late Pope, called him John Paul the Great, bestowing an epithet only accorded to two of his predecessors (Leo the Great and Gregory the Great, both of whom occupied the See of St Peter in late antiquity). John Paul "the Great" looks set to join Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who shared his uncompromising views on contraception and condoms, in becoming a candidate for canonisation within years of his death.

Obituaries on the broadcast media and in many newspapers, on the whole, focused on the perceived successes of John Paul II’s long pontificate: his role in the collapse of communism, his tireless travels, his courage in the face of physical pain, and his championing of the poor. World leaders cherry-picked the aspects of his reign they wished to be identified with. Hence President Bush of the US lionised John Paul’s opposition to communism and abortion, but ignored the late Pope’s unflinching opposition to capital punishment and both of the wars against Iraq.

But forthright criticism of the late Pope has also been voiced, often focusing on his opposition to the use of condoms not only for birth control, but to prevent the transmission of HIV.

Conservative Catholic opinion on condoms is not intended to be cruel. As traditional Catholics see it, using condoms is wrong, even as a prophylactic against disease, because they prevent conception. Life, from the moment of conception to death is, Catholics believe, sacred. Only God can terminate life. It is also worth noting that John Paul II spoke out against discrimination against people with HIV, and Catholic AIDS ministries around the world put his words into action.

But pseudo-scientific arguments have also been deployed by some conservative Catholics against the use of condoms as a means of HIV prevention. A recent BBC Panorama documentary found that some senior Catholic clerics were maintaining that not only were condoms theologically unsound, but were also spreading false information about the reliability and safety of condoms.

Thousands, even millions, of new HIV infections have therefore been attributed to the Catholic church’s, and in particular late pontiff’s, uncompromising opposition to the use of condoms. There are even moves for women who refused to use condoms on religious grounds and were infected with HIV by their husbands to be regarded as martyrs for the Catholic faith.

Although HIV activists and their allies in the liberal press have often led this criticism, support has come from some surprising quarters. Former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, Ferdinand Mount, was stung by a column by fellow Daily Telegraph columnist, the neo-conservative Mark Steyn, praising the Pope’s "culture of life", to use his column to highlight the faults of John Paul II’s, teaching, on condoms, birth control, and homosexuality.

Often over-looked, however, in the media evaluation of the late Pope and the speculation about his success, has been the role the Catholic church plays in delivering HIV care and treatment. Who ever is elected Pope, it’s certain that the Catholic church will continue to fulfil this role.

The UK Catholic aid agency CAFOD supports HIV care, education, and prevention programmes in Africa, Asia, eastern Europe and South America. Its publication "HIV and AIDS: the facts" is carefully worded and supports an ABC model of HIV prevention. Misinformation about the reliability of condoms is condemned by CAFOD, whether this misinformation suggests that condoms are 100% reliable, or that condoms have small holes in them which HIV is able to pass through.

Catholic religious and teaching orders play an important part in HIV treatment projects across the world, an example being the work of Sister Mary Virginia Annel, whose CONTRASIDA project provides antiretroviral therapy in El Salvador.

HIV prevention work often goes hand-in-hand with treatment and care initiatives. Traditional Catholic teaching does play an important role. But there’s also evidence that a pragmatic approach is being taken by some Catholic clergy working on the front line of HIV service delivery. Speaking at a UNAIDS press conference in London prior to the 2004 International AIDS Conference, Dr Peter Piot, head of UNAIDS and himself a Catholic, provided an example of such pragmatism. He described meeting Catholic nuns in southern Africa who were distributing condoms to women. When Dr Piot asked them how they could distribute condoms in defiance of official Vatican teaching, one of the nuns replied "Rome is a long way away".

Many devout Catholics and clergy would be shocked by such an attitude. Indeed, the conservative Catholic Action pressure group recently condemned giving to CAFOD as a "sin" because of its liberal attitude towards condoms and contraception. The leading African candidates for the pontificate all share a conservative interpretation of Catholic teaching on sexuality and condoms, even when used to prevent the transmission of HIV.

But there are splits within the Catholic hierarchy. In 2001 the South African Catholic Bishops Conference issued a statement on HIV supporting the use of condoms by discordant couples. A liberal, thought to be an outside candidate for the Papacy, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, archbishop of Brussels and Mechelen holds a similar position. He stated that if a person is HIV-positive and wishes to continue to be sexually active, they should use condoms to avoid infecting others or risk breaking the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”.

His comments may well represent mainstream Catholic opinion in Europe. The late cardinal Basil Hume stood by his assistant bishop of East London, Victor Guazzelli when he said “it seems to me that if people are set on intercourse they at least have an obligation of not passing on disease and death, even if the only possible means to them is the use of a condom. This seems to me common sense.” Basil Hume’s successor as archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor is reported to hold similar views. This should not necessarily surprise, as the western church is pragmatic about the use of contraception. Few western Catholics would confess the use of contraception to their parish priest, and few priests would impose a penance for the use of the contraceptive pill. An estimated that 75% of married Catholics in richer countries use the contraceptive pill, and Italy has the lowest birth-rate in the European Union.

There is also support for the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV amongst the Catholic laity. Given that the majority of western Catholics happily disregard official Catholic teachings on birth control, it is hardly surprising that an increasingly vocal and confident number of believers are prepared to challenge the Vatican on other issues. One such group is condoms4life, which grew out of Catholics for a Free Choice, a US pro-choice pressure group. Condoms4life was created after the Vatican claimed that promoting condom use contributed to the spread of HIV rather than containing transmission. The message of the organisation is simple: condoms save lives, and a good Catholic would use a condom to prevent the transmission of disease. It encourages Catholics to contact their bishops highlighting the ethical and health promotion arguments in favour of condoms.

Official doctrines on sexuality are also being challenged. Oranisations, such the UK based We Are the Church argue that official Catholic teaching does not acknowledge contemporary knowledge about human sexuality, and that celibacy should be a choice, not enforced. Theologians, such as Enda McDonagh, emeritus professor of moral theology at Maynooth College in Dublin, are stressing the value of committed same-sex relationships.

The Catholic church is the oldest institution in the western world. Tradition is not just quaint and picturesque in Catholicism, but is a guiding principle determining doctrine and authority. Supporters of orthodox Catholic teaching on condoms and sexuality therefore appeal to centuries of seeming theological and moral continuity to support their position. The church, they argue cannot change simply to keep up with modern secular values, even if these teachings on the role of women in the church, clerical celibacy, abortion and sexuality seem out of step.

But read some church history and it becomes all too clear how pliable the church actually is, and that traditional teachingss do not have the antiquity they are assumed to have. Women were deacons, the grade of ordained orders immediately below the priesthood, in the early Latin church, clerical celibacy was not enforced in Catholic Chistendom until the eleventh century, contraception and abortion until the 40th day of pregnancy were permissible until the Vatican Council of 1870, and it has even been suggested by an American scholar of the early church that a form of same-sex blessing existed in early ordinals.

The doctrines and teachings of the Catholic church are therefore open to change. It is not inconceivable that in the near future the church’s position on condoms, and many other issues relating to human sexuality and reproduction might change.

But is it likely to happen under the next Pope? Anybody who witnessed the television scenes of popular grief mourning around the world for John Paul II, or who heard or read the eulogies offered in his memory would be forgiven for thinking that he left a church well placed to face the challenges of the early 21st century. In fact, Catholicism is in crisis. Mass attendance fell dramatically during John Paul II’s reign, even in his native Poland, which along with other European countries and north America is critically short of priests. American Catholicism has been rocked by child abuse scandals. The church in Latin America is facing a challenge from evangelical protestantism which has claimed so many souls that it has been called a second Reformation. In Africa and Asia, attendance at mass and vocations remain high, but Islam poses a challenge prompting a hard-line stance. Yet also in Africa, AIDS calls into question teachings on contraception.

Will a pope in the John Paul II mode turn around the fortunes of the world’s largest religion? Or, will the cardinals gathering in the Sistine Chapel opt for change? There is recent precedent. In 1959 the conservative Pius XII (a hero of John Paul II and recently beatified by him) died after a reign of 19 years). His successor, John XXIII reigned for only five years, but by summoning the Second Vatican Council instigated reforms within the Catholic church which brought it into the 20th century. Perhaps the next successor to St Peter will introduce reforms to enable the church to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Thanks to Martin Pendergast for his help researching this article. Martin is secretary of Catholics for AIDS Prevention & Support (who can be contact by writing to CAPS - PO Box 24632, London E9 6XF). There is also a monthly support group in Central London for Catholics living with HIV - Positive Catholics: e-mail contact: positivecatholics@btinternet.com.