In my view, William J. Schuch has done us a favor by sharing this powerful argument for the use of condoms to prevent African women's deaths from AIDS.
Pope Benedict's condemnation of condoms contradicts his brother bishops, who are cited in this article. The official Vatican's opposition to condoms for at risk woman ignores medical findings and sound moral principles that are affirmed by the majority of Catholics. Saving women's lives is the duty of a pro-life church. As Roman Catholics, let us stand in solidarity with our African sisters and their children, whose lives are at risk from this immoral Vatican policy. Ask yourself, what would Jesus do in these circumstances? Bridget Mary Meehan
"We are our African Sisters' Keepers"
William J. Schuch
In 2007, in sub-Saharan Africa, which has a Catholic population of over 158 million, 1.7 million Africans were newly-infected with HIV largely as a result of heterosexual relations. Women represent 61% of those suffering from HIV & AIDS. This is more than 150% of the rate of infection among males. And the children they bear are often infected in the womb, during childbirth or breast-feeding. According to the latest UN figures, 30 per cent of pregnant women in South Africa have HIV/Aids. Many families are already fatherless, having lost the main bread-winners because they have walked out or died, while a large number are now becoming motherless as well due to HIV/AIDS leaving millions of AIDS orphans. AIDS orphans now exceed 11.4 million. In 2007, more than 1.6 million, mostly women & children, died from AIDS. This is a Holocaust over the past two decades whose toll in terms of suffering and deaths by far exceeds that experienced by the Jews at the hands of the Nazis. It began during John Paul II’s watch and continues under Benedict XVI. Neither Pontiff has shown real compassion for these victims.
Catholic Relief Services (CRS) cares for one-quarter of all HIV/AIDS victims regardless of their religious affiliation but is powerless to help prevent HIV and the suffering and deaths from AIDS because the Papal sycophants in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) have yet to demonstrate the compassion of Christ for these hapless women by directing CRS to provide HIV-positive husbands with condoms and urging their consistent use as a moral imperative if they insist on having sexual relations with their wives. Under its present morally-indefensible policy, CRS is guaranteed an inexhaustible supply of dieing women and children for which to care. This is how the USCCB, which preaches Respect Life, treats these women – callously ignoring their plight and denying them the inherent right of self-defense. This is a perverse scenario.
The needless suffering of these women and children is ultimately the bitter harvest of the Humane Vitae birth control encyclical which was promulgated over the objections of 90% of the cardinals, bishops, theologians, medical experts and married couples who comprised the birth control commission, 72 in all, appointed by Pope Paul VI. Only 7 of those commission members held that artificial birth control was intrinsically evil. It is an encyclical that has never been “received”, i.e. accepted, by most Catholics in developed countries and most Catholics have at times used artificial birth control with a clear conscience.
HIV prevention programs typically promote ABC – (1) Abstinence before marriage. (2) Be Faithful in Marriage and (3) Condoms if A & B are not feasible. The Vatican supports A & B and rejects C when, in fact, using condoms where one partner is HIV-positive is clearly PRO-LIFE. Yet recently, South African Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier, who opposes the distribution of condoms, pointed to Uganda as a remarkable success story because it “ has been able to reduce its HIV/AIDS prevalence through a program that includes abstinence, fidelity and condom use only for married couples”.
Unfortunately, African women are victims of their male-dominated cultures. A married woman living in Southern Africa is at higher risk of becoming infected with HIV than an unmarried woman. Extolling abstinence and fidelity, as the Vatican does, will not protect her; in all likelihood she is already monogamous. It is her husband who is likely to have HIV. Yet refusing a husband’s sexual overtures risks ostracism, violence, and destitution for herself and her children.
Sadly, the African national conferences of Catholic bishops have failed to stand up to the Vatican on this life and death issue. So these women, including non-Catholics under the care of CRS, are also the victims of the male-dominated Catholic Church in Africa.
On the other hand, the national conferences of bishops of 7 non-African nations and individual bishops, relying on the established pastoral moral theology principles of double effect, the right to self-defense and lesser evil, have recognized the plight of these women and urged the use of condoms to save lives. Here is what some of these Catholic bishops have publicly stated:
In an interview in May 2006 with a Scottish newspaper, Mario Conti, the Archbishop of Glasgow, pledged his support for the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers' recent decision to conduct and release a study on condom use to fight AIDS and contended that using condoms to stop transmission of the disease from one spouse to another is "common sense. Should we really be saying that it is in the benefit of the couple to refuse one another…and [live] as brother and sister when the whole nature of their marriage pushes them towards sacramentalising their marriage?" (Sadly, nothing has come of that study and since then several million more women have become infected and several million more died.)
Speaking in April 2006 at a meeting of Portuguese bishops Bishop Antonio Moreira, vice president of the Portuguese episcopal conference, said "In a context of marriage where one or both are infected, the use of a condom is a clear case of a lesser evil."
In recognition of a growing AIDS problem in Papua New Guinea, Bishop Gilles Cote, the head of the Daru-Kiunga Diocese in Western Province, conceded in March 2006 that it may be wise for the government to provide condoms. Speaking to the Vatican’s ban on contraception, he argued, “We also have a law—you should not kill…so there is a moral responsibility that those with a partner who is infected are protected.”
Less than a handful of bishops in Africa who have spoken out in favor of condom use, the most outspoken being white South African Bishop Kevin Dowling, who in an interview in the Chicago Tribune in November 2005 said he considers using condoms to be "a pro-life option in the widest sense." "For me, the issue is simply this: How do you preserve and protect life? Under church doctrine, that is "not only allowable, it's a moral imperative," He concluded that he would like to see a "humble attitude" from the Vatican and the recognition that "we have to develop a theology for the HIV-AIDS pandemic that recognizes the poor and the suffering and the marginalized and the vulnerable”
Mexican Bishop Felipe Arizmendi in January 2005 argued that condoms may be appropriate for those who cannot abstain. "They should use whatever is necessary in order not to infect others and not to infect themselves. There is no other alternative."
Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, a Mexican who heads the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, in February 2005 said he finds the use of condoms acceptable when abstinence is not an option. "If an infected husband wants to have sex with his wife who isn't infected, then she must defend herself by whatever means necessary," he said. This position, Barragán said, is consistent with the tenets of Catholic moral theology, which teaches that acts of self-defense can extend to killing in order to not be killed.
Cardinal Georges Cottier, theologian of the pontifical household, in February 2005 told news agency Apcom that while condoms cannot be condoned as a contraceptive, "The use of condoms in some situations can be considered morally legitimate" to prevent the spread of HIV. Cardinal Cottier explained that because "the virus is transmitted during a sexual act; so at the same time as (bringing) life there is also a risk of transmitting death. And that is where the commandment 'thou shalt not kill' is valid."
Bishop Boniface Lele of Kenya in January 2005 said “Faced with the sad prospect of families being wiped out in circumstances where one infected in the couple infects and/or re-infects the other, and without sanctioning separations of properly constituted matrimonies, the use of condoms to prolong life may seem a useful tool in the long run."
Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán of Mexico in March 2004 stated condoms can be condoned when a woman cannot refuse her HIV-positive husband. He said that since preserving one's own life is paramount, "You can defend yourself with any means."
Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium in January 2004 said that he accepts the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. "When an HIV-positive person says to his partner, 'I want to have sexual relations,' he must use a condom. Morally, it cannot be judged on the same level as when a condom is used to reduce the number of births."
The German Bishops Conference in 1997 noted “We must make people understand that sexual intercourse has its legitimate place within the space of lasting partnership that is protected by faithfulness and confidence. In the face of the effective life threat that results from HIV/AIDS, everything needs to be done to avoid an infection.”
Following Pope Benedict’s controversial statements regard condoms during this recent visit to Africa, three Portuguese bishops took issue with Pope Benedict’s comments. Military Bishop Januário Torgal Mendes Ferreira said that “to ban condom use was equivalent to consenting to the death of many people,” adding that the Pope’s advisors should give him “more learned advice.” Bishop Manuel José Macário do Nascimento Clemente of Porto said that the use of condoms by persons with AIDS is “not only recommendable” but also “can be ethically obligatory.” Bishop Ilídio Pinto Leandro of Viseu said that those “who cannot avoid having sexual relations are morally obliged to avoid passing on the disease by using a condom.” The latter two bishops were both appointed to their sees by Pope Benedict.
It is a fact that more than 25 Catholic moral theologians have published articles claiming that without undermining church teaching, church leaders do not have to oppose but may support the distribution of prophylactics within an educational program that first underlines church teaching on sexuality. These arguments are made by invoking moral principles like those of “lesser evil,” “cooperation,” “toleration” and “double effect.” By these arguments, moralists around the world now recognize a theological consensus on the legitimacy of various H.I.V. preventive efforts, including condoms.
(I urge you to read HIV/AIDS- The Expanding Ethical Challenge by James Keenan S.J. Chair, Catholic Theological Coalition on HIV/AIDS Prevention since 1997. Father Keenan is an internationally-recognized moral theologian on the faculty of Boston College who has lectured all over the world on HIV/AIDS prevention.)
The USCCB has been shamefully silent on this issue since 1989 when it recanted its approval of providing factual information on prophylactic devices as a potential means of preventing AIDS stating that "The use of prophylactics to prevent the spread of HIV is technically unreliable”. Since then the World Health Organization has published its findings that good quality condoms properly and consistently used are “at least 80%, and possibly more, effective in reducing the transmission of HIV for co-habitating couples”. Nevertheless, to the dismay of the international medical profession, there have periodic attempts by highly-placed Catholic prelates to dismiss these data.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on HIV/AIDS prevention has stated that “fewer than one in five people at greatest risk of infection have access to effective prevention programs such as education, condom distribution, prevention of mother to child HIV transmission and HIV testing. It is estimated that new HIV infections could be cut in half by 2015 if effective prevention programs are expanded and reach those at greatest risk of HIV infection.” Faithful wives with HIV-positive husbands certainly fall into that group!
The Gates Foundation which is spending millions on the development of an effective microbicide, i.e. a gel that a woman can use to protect herself from getting infected, further states that “it is very likely to be more than 10 years before we have one in widespread use”. According to the Foundation, “People who are already infected with HIV need to start using anti-retroviral drugs before their immune systems become weakened, usually within five years of becoming infected. Some 3 million are presently on those drugs which is but a fraction of those presently infected with HIV who are destined for AIDS if not treated with the anti-retrovirals. Given the need to take these drugs indefinitely to ward off the onset of AIDS, there is now question whether there will ever be a sufficient supply of these drugs for all those infected with HIV, now or in the future. Hence the imperative to use condoms to prevent HIV in the first place.”
Melinda Gates, a Catholic deeply committed to the battle against AIDS, has stated “Some have argued that condoms do not protect against HIV, but in fact help spread it. This is a serious obstacle to ending AIDS. In the fight against AIDS, condoms save lives. If you oppose the distribution of condoms, something is more important to you than saving lives.”
Clearly, the Vatican’s hard line on condoms is a significant obstacle to the success of the Gates Foundation, the Clinton Foundation and other NGOs working in the field to contain the pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa. And sadly, the USCCB by not urging the Vatican to ease up its hard line on
condoms has not only failed to demonstrate pastoral compassion for these women but is part of the problem facing those NGOs.
USCCB must be goaded into joining the other national conferences of bishops who have had the courage to stand up for the victims of HIV and AIDS notwithstanding the morally-unsupportable position of the Vatican against the use of condoms in the battle against AIDS. Christ in his brief time on earth preached what is now characterized as “the preferential option for the poor” and urged his disciples and those who would follow to emulate his compassion for the poor. What more fundamental preferential option for the poor could there be than saving of the lives of these women?
During the 4 days that the USCCB is in session, more than 10,000 Africans, mostly women, will be newly infected and approximately the same number will die a painful death from AIDS. Will the USCCB chose to continue to ignore this unconscionable travesty or will it act to alleviate it?
The U.S. bishops need to understand that following their cover-up of the clergy sexual abuse of children, their failure to insist that Vatican be guided by the Church’s pastoral principles of moral theology to protect these innocent women makes them complicit together with the Vatican in the horrendous AIDS/HIV pandemic in Africa and once again calls into question their moral capacity to lead their flocks.