A Moralistic Crusade: Sex, Condoms and the Catholic Hierarchy

By Sippel, Serra | Conscience, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

A Moralistic Crusade: Sex, Condoms and the Catholic Hierarchy


Sippel, Serra, Conscience


In the face of millions of deaths each year from AIDS, the institutional Catholic church's position on condoms has starkly exposed the church's failure to live in solidarity with the poor and oppressed and its failure to be an authentic voice for distributive justice. In recent years the institutional church (hereafter the "church") has been a strong proponent for development, however its advocacy is futile. Its position on condoms undermines global efforts at HIV/AIDS prevention, which is critical to development.

At the recent World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, Peter Piot, director of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), stated that, "If the world is to stand any chance of meeting its aspirations for sustainable development, then our action agenda must include a full-scale attack on AIDS." (1) HIV/AIDS impacts every sector of society, especially in the developing world: workplace, households, education systems, and of course, the health sector. To be a true advocate for justice and sustainable development, the church must speak the truth and support global efforts to provide people with comprehensive and effective tools for HIV/AIDS prevention, and that includes safe sex instruction, information about and access to condoms.

AN INSTITUTIONAL PROBLEM

Catholic moral theologians and bishops have articulated theologically acceptable arguments to justify the church's recognition that condom-use can and should be used for HIV/AIDS prevention. (2) Meanwhile, bishops' conferences and the Vatican ignore these arguments, as well as convincing scientific evidence. They erroneously claim that condoms are ineffective for HIV/AIDS prevention, while arguing that condoms promote "illicit" sex. A notable example of this was when Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg, South Africa, claimed that, "The use of a condom can be seen ... as a means to prevent ... the `transmission of death' to another." (3) Soon after, in the concluding statement of their semi-annual meeting, the bishops of Southern Africa issued a contradictory statement that claimed, "widespread and indiscriminate promotion of condoms [is] an immoral and misguided weapon in our battle against HIV/AIDS...." (4)

In the midst of the church's efforts to prevent condom use, in 2001, 5 million people became infected with HIV. Today there are approximately 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS. It is shameful that members of the hierarchy credit the church as being a world leader for the treatment and care of those who are living with the deadly disease AIDS, when they consistently attempt to damage global efforts at prevention.

Hence, it is a tragedy every time the church turns a deaf ear to Catholic theologians and bishops who seek to transform the church's regimen of treatment and care for those living with AIDS, to include sincere effective efforts to prevent the spread of the disease. Although the church prides itself for promoting abstinence as the only "moral" way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS through sexual intercourse, these theologians and bishops know that such a narrow approach to prevention does not address the realities of millions of people across the globe.

UNHOLY TREATMENT AND CARE

The church reportedly provides treatment for 25 percent of people infected with HIV/AIDS. This means that the church is responsible for treating 10 million people currently infected with HIV/AIDS. Providing treatment and care for so many people around the world who are suffering and dying from such a stigma-laden disease deserves high acclaim. However, such compassion and care is sadly diminished and discredited because the 100,000 Catholic hospitals and 200,000 social services agencies around the world that fall under the jurisdiction of the church are forbidden from providing condoms and safe sex instruction--even to those who are not Catholic. Accordingly, 10 million people infected with HIV/AIDS may not be counseled or educated about the use of condoms for HIV/AIDS prevention, nor provided with condoms. …

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