Jesuit says Vatican condom concession would be nothing new

Ethicist Fr Bill Uren of Newman College at the University of Melbourne has said that the mooted Vatican "permission" for Catholics to use condoms to counter the HIV/AIDS epidemic is merely an application of the traditional "double effect" principle of Catholic moral theology.

Crikey reports that Fr Uren, responding to a front page feature in The Independent today, said that "I am surprised that The Independent's Rome correspondent is quite so positive about the likelihood of an imminent change in the Catholic Church's position on the use of condoms to counter the AIDS epidemic."

He quoted The Independent story as saying that "the Catholic Church is on the brink of a historic change of approach over condoms". The UK paper reports that the forthcoming Vatican document is set to approve the use of condoms in a marriage where one partner is infected with HIV/AIDS and the other is not.

Fr Uren said that that if the use of condoms in this way was approved by the Church, it will not be an innovation, "still less, a capitulation".

"A number of distinguished moral theologians have been advocating such a change for a number of years, and the movement has gained momentum recently with the support of half a dozen cardinals whose representations could not be so easily ignored by the Vatican," he said.

Fr Uren said that he expects the Vatican review will not depart with traditional principles of moral theology.

He said the 1968 encyclical letter on contraception, Humanae Vitae, only forbade the use of contraceptives when they were used for exclusively contraceptive purposes.

"One could use contraceptives for other therapeutic purposes - for 'rebound' fertility therapy, for a female athlete wishing to prevent menstruation, etc - provided, as in these instances, the intention was not primarily contraceptive," he said.

Fr Uren argues that "double effect" line of reasoning in the encyclical could be applied to cases of AIDS-infected conjugal relationships where the intention is not contraceptive but life-saving.

He said this argument would be more persuasive to the "sophisticated theological mind of Benedict XVI" than the "lesser evil" argument, as avocated by the former archbishop of Milan Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini.

"Whatever the time-line, one can only welcome the Vatican's intention to review the hitherto hard-line prohibition on the use of condoms," Fr Uren said.

Meanwhile, the ABC reports on the mixed international responses to Cardinal Martini's interview in Italian weekly magazine L'Espresso last month - which sparked off the debate over condoms - including the views of Martin Rhonheimer, an Opus Dei priest and Professor of Ethics and Political Philosophy at the Opus Dei University in Rome.

Fr Rhonheimer told the ABC that the Church does not teach how to render less immoral intrinsically immoral behaviour, such as sex outside marriage.

But "somebody who is not ready to change behaviour, he at least shows a kind of responsibility if he tries to prevent infection [of AIDS]," he said. "I think that's commonsense."

Fr Rhonheimer said that the position of the Church has not changed on the issue. But Church's position "has to be clarified in these issues, and that in consequence, certain theological approaches to it should be modified".

"Many theologians believe that the norm of contraception told by the encyclical Humanae Vitae, Paul VI, has already settled the question, but I think this is not true," he said.

"Humanae Vitae specifically tackled the problem of responsible parenthood and contraception, that is, the question of intentionally separating one's sexual behaviour from its meaning of serving the transmission of life.

"From the moral point of view, using a condom to prevent infection simply has nothing to do with contraception, it's another question," he said.

"So while the good and normal way of preventing infection is to abstain from the act which might transmit the disease, of course, that's abstinence. This perhaps is not always possible," he said.

"It's clear that a married man, for example, who is infected and uses a condom to protect his wife from infection, is not actually to render procreation impossible, so he's not doing a contraceptive act."

Catholic church set to approve condoms -- if you're married and have Aids (Crikey 3/5/06)
Catholics and condoms (ABC Radio The Religion Report 3/5/06)

Is Pope poised to sanction condoms? (The Independent 4/5/06)
Pope could be poised to sanction condoms (New Zealand Herald 3/5/06)
James Carroll: Outlawed AIDS prevention (Boston Globe 1/5/06)
AAFI calls for PNG HIV/AIDS help (Online Catholics 3/5/06)

4 May 2006