US Catholic Faith in Real Life

What I wish the pope would say about HIV

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The Examined Life of late has become The Examined Pope, but I have to comment on the news, after all, and Pope Benedict XVI has been generating plenty of it. His brief comments on HIV on the way to Africa have drawn strong criticism not only from development agencies but even foreign governments.

I have argued that the church should change its policy on the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV (you can read my December column here), but I think most of the commentary, especially this blog from Beliefnet, completely misses the point. In this case, the pope can have it both ways: maintaining church teaching on artificial birth control and permitting Catholic agencies in Africa to promote condoms as one tool in their approach to HIV prevention.

On the first point: The principle of double effect can easily be applied to condom use in HIV prevention. If an HIV-positive partner with an HIV-negative spouse has sex with his or her spouse, that person would have a moral obligation to take whatever precaution necessary to prevent transmission. Of course, abstinence would be the safest, but given that abstinence is a high hurdle for many to climb and the likelihood that forced abstinence in marriage may lead one of the partners to seek sex outside the marriage, possibly resulting in further infections, it make sense to permit condoms, not for the sake of contraception, but for disease prevention. To force celibacy on everyone involved is to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

On the second point, the pope could continue to point out that Catholicism offers a integrated, humanized vision of human sexuality that presents an ideal to be striven for, but one which, for a variety of reasons, is not always possible. In the case of widespread HIV-infection, sex that is open to life in every situation isn't possible, though the unitive purpose of sex in marriage is still a good that married couples can seek in their sexual life. It is not perfect or even foolproof, but better than the alternative.

My only argument is that the church needs to make allowance for the human condition in this situation. Catholic agencies don't want to blanket the world in condoms, but they do want to use them as part of a comprehensive approach that begins with abstinence and being faithful. There is room in the church's teaching for that approach, and I wish the pope would acknowledge the possibility, while continuing to promote the highest ideals.