The discussion of whether the Catholic Church should tolerate the use of condoms as a lesser evil in fighting the spread of AIDS resurfaced at the Vatican as a result of an article in America (9/23). In that article, Jon D. Fuller, S.J., M.D., and James F. Keenan, S.J., analyzed an article in L’Osservatore Romano by Msgr. Jacques Suaudeau and concluded that the article signaled that the Roman Curia could tolerate the use of condoms as a lesser evil in the fight against AIDS.
Some of the theologians closest to the Vatican, while emphasizing that contraception should never be accepted, told Catholic News Service there was still lively scholarly debate about whether and how condom usein certain extreme circumstancesmight be allowed. A few even said that Catholic couples in which one spouse has AIDS could use a condom to defend the healthy partner from infection as long as they had no contraceptive intent.
There is an ongoing debate among Catholic theologians, said Georges Cottier, O.P., Pope John Paul II’s in-house theologian. While disagreeing on some points, all the theologians who spoke to Catholic News Service said tolerance of condom use could only occur on a case-by-case basis and could never be advocated as a policy to fight AIDS. They said their acceptance of condoms in certain circumstances should not be interpreted as general approval or as an exception to the church’s ban on contraception.
Instances where condoms might be allowed are neither a norm nor an exception to a norm, said Maurizio Faggioni, O.F.M., a professor of moral theology at Rome’s Alphonsianum University and a consultant to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It is an application of moral principles to specific cases, which must be carefully examined individually, he said.
In a statement of rebuttal, Monsignor Suaudeau said the two Jesuits had unjustly amplified one point of the article, which referred to condoms as a lesser evil in the case of Thai prostitutes. The overall thrust of the article was that condom use could not be proposed as a model of humanization and development, he said.
Speaking to CNS on Sept. 21, Monsignor Suaudeau said his use of the term lesser evil was not so unusual. He said that the phrase has been commonly used by moral theologians and church leaders like Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris to describe condom use in extreme cases like AIDS. The Vatican official stressed that his use of the phrase did not signify an official Vatican endorsement and said that many moral theologians criticized the principle.
Among the critics of the lesser evil principle is Father Faggioni. Some moralists accept it, and it’s also part of tradition, he told CNS, but to me it doesn’t seem a (moral principle) which helps. A Christian can never do evil, even the lesser evil. Nonetheless, Father Faggioni, who is also a medical doctor, said condom use to protect against AIDS can be tolerated on other grounds. Citing the example of prostitutes who show no immediate intention of leaving their profession, he said condom use might be seen as one step in a progression of human liberation.
A woman who understands that she cannot put her life or the life of another in danger is a woman who has grown morally, in comparison to a woman who has no consideration for her health or the health of others, he said. Only in this path of pastoral graduality is it possible to toleratehere, Catholic ethics does not approve, but toleratesthe use of a prophylactic, he said.
The Rev. Gonzalo Miranda, of the Legionnaires of Christ, secretary of the bioethics center at Rome’s Sacred Heart Catholic University, said that using a condom in a situation involving prostitutes with AIDS could be described as a lesser evil if one meant it as a social or health evil and not a moral evil. When faced with a prostitute who makes clear her intention to continue her work, he said, Knowing concretely that she will not stop, I can say, all right, at least use [a condom] so the risk of infection is less. An important aspect of the analysis, he said, is that the greater evil, death by AIDS, is much greater than the lesser evil of using a condom.
Father Cottier declined to detail for the record whether he thought the principle of a lesser evil applied to condoms and AIDS, but said: I personally think that one must take into account the fact that the sexual act in these circumstances leads to death. The principle fully holds: Do not kill.
Even for Catholic couples, Father Faggioni said, condom use might be justified when one of the spouses has AIDS, as long as the exclusive and primary intent was to defend the healthy partner from infection and not to prevent pregnancy. Another important consideration, he said, was the risk of infection despite the use of the condom.
This is a classic application of the Catholic moral principle of double effect, he said, in which one’s good action has an unintended bad effect. But given the uniqueness of each case, priests could not advocate this sort of condom use from the pulpit, he said. This is an answer to be given in an internal forum, case by case, where the priest must consider the conditions, he said.
For Father Miranda, the serious risk of infection that persists even when using a condom suggests that abstinence is the authentic route for Catholic couples in such extreme situations. The theologian said that admitting the possibility of condom use in some concrete cases does not contradict church disapproval of condom campaigns and promotion in general.
As early as 1995, Catholic Church leaders and moral theologians have admitted the possibility of condom use in specific, extreme circumstances. In 1996 the French bishops released a document that said that using condoms may be a necessary but insufficient means for battling AIDS. Vatican theologians were among those who agreed that condom use, while not morally licit, might be tolerable in certain circumstances. Also in 1996, now-Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, o.p., of Vienna, a principal editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, said that in given situations, the condom can be seen as the lesser evil.
Chinese Government Objects to Canonization
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said that most of the 120 martyrs to be canonized on Oct. 1 were agents of Western imperialism who deserved to die. The majority, Sun Yuxi said, were executed for violating Chinese law during the invasion of China by imperialists and colonialists. Their canonization distorts truth and history, beautifies imperialism and slanders the peace-loving Chinese people. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls responded that the canonization ceremony has no political motivation and is not directed against anyone. Earlier in September, Chinese church officials told Cardinal Roger Etchegaray during his private visit to Beijing that the upcoming canonization of the 120 Chinese martyrs has caused great pressure on the Catholic Church in China.
Negative Reaction to Dominus Iesus Continues
The Vatican declaration Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church continues to be criticized around the world, including in Rome. Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that neither the time nor the language of the document were opportune. Although the pope approved the Ratzinger document, he observed, there is quite a difference between a formula of approval and the signature that the pope puts to a text with his own hand. As to his encyclical Ut Unum SintJohn Paul II signed that. He did not sign Dominus Iesus. Bishop Walter Kasper, secretary of the same council, said he agreed with the basic principles in the document, but said it lacked the necessary sensitivity.
The Rev. Ellen Wondra, Anglican coordinator of a long-term project on authority for ARC-USA, the U.S. Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue, said the way the document spells out its position is part of the era of mutual polemics among churches rather than an era of reconciliation and greater communion. Michael Root, a leading Lutheran ecumenist, said the document’s lack of attention to ecumenical advances seems to me to simply place us back where we were 30 years ago. Manfred Kock, chairman of the Council of the German Protestant Church, an umbrella organization uniting Lutheran and Reformed churches, said that evidently the Vatican wants to turn the clock back on ecumenical relations.
Jewish leaders also criticized the document. Rabbi Leon Klenicki, interreligious affairs director of the Anti-Defamation League called it a step backwards in the dialogue relationship. In the national Jewish newspaper, Rabbi Joel Berger, spokesman for the German rabbinical conference, wrote that whereas Judaism had been seen as a sister religion, it has now been thrown out of the family. A Vatican-sponsored day of Jewish-Christian dialogue was postponed indefinitely after leaders of Rome’s Jewish community withdrew their participation because of the document.
Several reports by UCAN, an Asian church news agency, highlighted Asian viewsCatholic and non-Catholicthat the document reflected a Western failure to understand religion and culture in Asia. The Rev. John Fernandez, a theologian at St. Joseph Catholic Major Seminary in Mangalore, called for a serious dialogue between the Western clergy who prepared the document and Asian theologians who [have to] live with it. He said it tried to impose an 18th-century European faith on a 21st-century Asian church. C. S. Radhakrishnan, a Hindu in Goa State, said it was ironic that followers of a merciful Christ should speak intolerant language. He said the declaration’s claim of the church’s necessity for salvation would spark unnecessary animosity among religions in India.
On the other hand, Muzammil Siddiqi of Los Angeles, president of the Islamic Society of North America and Muslim co-chairman of the West Coast Dialogue of Catholics and Muslims, said the document spells out the Catholic position that other religions are deficient, but our position is the same thing: that the Catholic position is deficient.