Pope Benedict XVI stunned many people last week with his comments that condoms actually help to spread AIDS. His words raised old questions about the difficult relationship between the Catholic Church and sex in general.
What do they really have against a simple device that saves millions from infection every year? And why are they so committed to a policy that could best be described as "pro-death"?
The Catholic Church detests condoms even though they can prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. The reason that the Catholic Church is rigidly opposed to them is that condoms interfere with the "process of creation" which the Church believes was designed by God. To interfere in this process at any point in the chain of sexual events that lead to conception, is regarded by the Catholic Church as "intrinsically" wrong because of its "absolutist" moral stance.
The Catholic Church believes that nothing can be done to interfere with the process of creating life. Therefore, any sexual act which, by intention, is not completed with the deposition of semen in the vagina is "intrinsically" wrong.
Hence, masturbation, sex before marriage, anal intercourse with ejaculation into the rectum, oral intercourse to completion, coitus interruptus, condoms of any sort, the contraceptive pill, any other contraceptive device, tubal ligation, vasectomy, termination of pregnancy at any stage and more, are all "intrinsically" wrong in the eyes of the Church.
Note that because of the "unity" of this reproductive process, the Church cannot and will not make any exception at any point in the process. To do so at one point (for example, permitting contraception) would, in fact, mean that any other point in the process is open to question and not "intrinsically wrong".
This is actually why the Church did not allow the contraceptive pill. And it is the reason why it never will until it changes its fundamental attitude to moral theology and abandons its absolutist stance which is based on far outdated mediaeval thinking. Even the Cardinal who suggested that condoms might be the "lesser of two evils" in Africa was told, I gather, that he held an unacceptable view. The "unacceptability" of this view is due to the fact that it makes an exception in the "intrinsic" chain of reproductive events. The Catholic Church will not make "exceptions" to moral actions that are regarded as being "intrinsically wrong".
The Catholic Church and other anti-condom religious groups still hold considerable influence over the sex lives of millions of people in Africa. In Uganda for example, where over 40 per cent of the population is Catholic, AIDS education and condom awareness for young people beginning to be sexually active has suffered because many of the schools are faith based. There, the problem is compounded because Government awareness and health programs are designed in accordance with the conservative religious views of the country’s leader, and also in accordance with the largely anti-condom stance of the USA’s AIDS control package to the country. That aid package was itself designed in alignment with the Bush administration’s conservative Christian beliefs.
And all of this is despite the very clear evidence that condoms are far and away the cheapest, quickest and most efficient method of preventing the spread of the devastating AIDS epidemic. The children who don’t die are left orphans, women are left with families and no means of income support, and the infected die with great suffering. The challenge for the Church is to change the fundamental principles of its moral theology. If it doesn’t, it will simply be left behind by a developing and far better educated world. What is more, if it does not change, it will eventually die out. That may take time but it will happen.
This is why the Pope’s comments on his flight to Cameroon, at the beginning of a tour of the African continent where 22 million suffer from AIDS, were met with dismay by people all over the world. He stated that the epidemic was a "drama that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which on the contrary increase the problem".
Those on the ground, working to contain the spread of AIDS as well as the researchers into the problem of AIDS were stunned with disbelief. They should not have been.
The Pope’s response was highly predictable. Although there are many voices in his own Church calling for a more realistic and compassionate policy, he is not about to change his views. He should not have been asked that question when his answer was already known. The appropriate behaviour would be to ignore the Church’s view as expressed by the Pope and use, instead, the right of conscience and flood the African continent with condoms. After all, that is what we in the west have done. When the condom became popular here, the Church stated that the use of contraception was "intrinsically wrong". Now they say little about it unless they are asked directly.
Of course there are some rather silly exceptions like those bishops who hold "anniversaries" to commemorate the publication of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical banning contraception. Meanwhile, survey after survey shows that in places all over the world a significant majority of Catholics support the use of contraceptives, having made up their minds based on their own consciences. This issue will not go away as a result of argument. It simply must be ignored as nonsense.
For the Church to think that "abstinence", "chastity" and "not till I get married" will provide the answer is, from all the research statistics, patently absurd. Humans everywhere, young and old, are going to have sex; unless they are properly trained in the use of contraceptives they will continue to have more unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
The answer is clear. Just as they used their own conscience to disagree with the ban by the Church on contraceptives in Humanae Vitae, they must likewise use their own conscience to have mutually agreed sex with the protection of condoms. Furthermore, it is crucial for everyone, Catholics included, to make sure that all the conditions are in place to allow people to make this choice for themselves, which includes adequate contraception education and the ready availability of the contraceptives themselves.
The Catholic Church will not like that but that is their problem. The world has moved on and will continue to move on. Let the Church be warned. The people will vote against them with their feet. Until the Catholic Church changes its thinking, it stands condemned for inflicting untold harm on innocent people who have an intrinsic right to be human beings and to behave in a human manner.
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