Wednesday, April 26, 2006

on condoms and HIV: stay the course on abstinence

“Vatican officials said a study on condoms and AIDS protection was still in the consultation stage and that Pope Benedict XVI had yet to decide whether a document would be issued on the topic”---this is the latest on this issue which surfaced a few days ago when it was reported that quite possibly a document from the Vatican is in the works on the use of condoms when one of the spouses is HIV-positive.

One local moral theologian has put in his two cents in the local paper today. Referencing the U.S. Bishops’ document from 1987 entitled “The Many Faces of AIDS: A Gospel Response,” Coleman points out that the moral principle of “lesser of two evils” is Thomistic and may be used as a solution to this moral issue. He writes:

This section [of the U.S. bishops' 1987 document] referenced "the teaching of classical theologians (such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas), who might provide assistance as we search for a way to bring into balance the need for a full and authentic understanding of human sexuality...".

The "principle" of the lesser of two evils....has been a standard reference in classical moral textbooks. The principle is addressed to pastors and counsels that should they be unable to dissuade a person from doing evil, then the pastor should (under this circumstance) counsel a lesser evil. A traditional example included a man intent on beating his wife and no amount of discussion from the pastor could move him from this intent. The pastor could then persuade the man to get drunk -- as a lesser evil -- and hopefully avoid the greater evil.

Cardinal Martini [who was recently quoted in the press for expressing his approval of the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV] is rightly using this principle. If a person who is HIV positive or who has AIDS refuses to abstain from sexual intercourse, then this person can be counseled to use a condom to avoid the greater evil of transmitting the disease, for example, if a husband refuses to abstain from sexual intercourse with his wife for fear that she might learn that he is HIV positive, then the husband can be counseled to use a condom.

This kind of thinking is problematic for these reasons:

In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas used the Latin word “tolerant” [Sic igitur et in regimine humano illi qui praesunt recte aliqua mala tolerant, ne aliqua bona impediantur, vel etiam ne aliqua mala pejora incurrantur. Translation: “So also in human governance, those who govern rightly tolerate certain evils lest certain goods be impeded or also lest some greater evil obtain.”]

To “tolerate” is not the same as to “counsel” which is the word Coleman has used. To tolerate in Latin [toleratus] means to bear, to put up with. That is a far cry from “couseling” and “advising” someone on a course of action. Thomas never said we can counsel someone to do evil.

Rather, Thomas wrote: “Some think that God wills evils to happen because of the good that follows. This is a mistake. God follows from evil indirectly despite the intentions of the evildoer. That evils happen is not directly good but only indirectly, and cannot be willed directly by God (Summa Theologiae: A concise translation; 1989, edited by Timothy McDermott, page 53; from ST, I-II, 96.2).

Towards the end of Coleman’s piece he rightly adds: “No one should be under the illusion that the use of condoms is an absolute safeguard to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS.”

The U.S. Bishops themselves said the same in the document released in 1987 which Coleman himself has identified. The bishops said, “We are not promoting the use of prophylactics..... So-called safe sex practices are at best only partially effective. They do not take into account either the real values that are at stake or the fundamental good of the human person.”

Therefore, to say on the one hand that we may “counsel” couples to use condoms because it is "the lesser of two evils" and then to say on the other hand that using a condom is not foolproof is like talking out of both sides of one’s mouth. It’s inconsistent. And a greater evil results if that condom were to break or is misused, and the other partner is thereby infected. Guess who that couple could blame: yep, the Church, which has “counseled” them to use a condom.

And so, if I were given a chance to the speak to the folks in Rome who may be working on a document on this moral issue, I'd say: stay the course with regards to teaching that abstinence is the best way to prevent the transmission of HIV. This is the only foolproof way to stop the spread of this disease.

Couples with one seropositive spouse are indeed in a difficult and painful situation. It doesn’t help matters when as a Church we start counseling them to do something that puts the other at risk.

And I know that couples are aware that expressions of physical affection and love are still available to them, short of coitus. To presume that “they are going to do it anyway, so let’s just counsel them to buy a packet of condoms” expects the least from them.

Come to think of it, telling this to our children likewise expects the least from them. Rather, encouraging individuals to love in a more perfect manner is the way. Wouldn't abstinence be a manner of loving one's spouse in this situation?

The Catholic News Service reports one Vatican official as saying: "You cannot discount the suffering of all these people (with HIV/AIDS). But condoms are not fail-safe. They're a form of Russian roulette."

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