Friday, November 24, 2006

The rubber hits the road: the Vatican on condoms

The Vatican has long had two basic objections to the use of condoms. First, condoms are a form of contraception, and runs counter to strong connection between sex and reproduction in the Christian tradition. Married Christian people should not use them. If they do not want children, they should simply abstain from sex. Second, the Church believes that the use of condoms promotes premarital and extramarital sex, both of which are immoral. People who are not married and consider themselves Christian should not use them. Unmarried people who want to have sex should either get married or abstain from sexual activity (Of course, gay men should neither get married or use condoms to commit their abominations). A third, putatively scientific argument sprung up some years ago: that condoms are not useful in the prevention of HIV anyway, because that sneaky little virus can burrow its way through the rubber. The bottom line is: no Christian should use condoms. Of course, there are those that depart from the script. But there is a script, and it gets read.

Many Africans, after centuries of missionary activity, have embraced Christ and, with the help of Church doctrine, have rejected the condom as immoral. Not all, but many faith-based health care organizations and Christian health care workers have assisted in the demonization of the condom in Africa. In the 25 year history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, it is unknown just how many African lives have been lost on account of this aspect of Christian sexual morality. But considering the amount of time and size of the populations involved, the numbers cannot be unsubstantial. One would think that an institution which is 'pro-life' on many fronts would be ethically concerned about policies that are effectively pro-death. But the Church has held its hardline position on the condom as HIV infections have continued to rise, and the majority of the 25 million people who have died of AIDS were sub-Saharan Africans. In his trip to Africa last year, the Pope was worried about the epidemic, but not about the Church position on the condom.

There are currently murmurings that the Church may budge on its position, if ever so slightly. Pope Benedict XVI has commissioned a report on the scientific and moral aspects of the use of condoms. The 200 page report will be reviewed by top theologians, and may be used to inform a papal document on the subject. Most observers believe that the revised position could allow for the use of condoms among married couples, when one of them is HIV positive. If this is the case, it will be interesting to see how theologicans will justify this use of the condom, while condemning all the other uses.

The World Health Organization seems to welcome this development, even if it is a question of 'too little, too late.' The change of position would be welcome, because many African women are vulnerable to being HIV infected by their husbands, and it hardly helps that the latter can cite the Pope and the Catholic Church to justify their not using a condom. A new Papal document might help change the dynamics of the Christian African bedroom. But the change might be too little, because it would not help with the sexual activity that takes place among persons not married to one another. And, of course, it is too late for all those who have died, or are HIV infected already, under the traditional position. One can't help but wonder: if the Vatican was not located in Rome, but somehow in Durban or Gaborone instead, wouldn't the position have changed ages ago?


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