Today — three popes and nearly 40 years later — Pope Benedict XVI has ordered a Vatican staff report on whether condoms can be approved for situations in which there is potential for HIV infection. That report is imminent, according to Vatican rumors, and it is likely that Benedict will act quickly on it given that it was undertaken on his initiative.
Benedict’s review was prompted, in part, by a handful of prominent cardinals and bishops who assert that condoms are necessary to control HIV infection worldwide. Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg, South Africa, after watching countless young women die of AIDS in a health clinic he established, veered from Vatican orthodoxy when he said in 1998 that “denying condoms is a death sentence for women.”
If in fact Benedict moves away from the absolute prohibition against condoms, it likely will be a very measured step; for instance, he might allow their use only in developing countries, where there is little stigma attached to husbands’ infidelity, a factor that increases the risk of infection for innocent wives. However, no matter how narrowly focused, any relaxation of the rules about condoms will have far-reaching consequences.
But a change of doctrine may not be easy.
Even the smallest reversal of Paul’s absolute moral rule calls into question the entire contraception ruling, the morality of abortion (which the encyclical forbids under the same argument as contraception) and the doctrine of papal infallibility. This last because even though Paul did not formally invoke papal infallibility, it was clear he meant to lay down a law with no exceptions.
Yet Humanae Vitae is not, in its reasoning, as absolute as one might think.
Peter C. Boulay, "a former religious brother, has been a reporter, magazine editor and editor of a Catholic newspaper. He is writing a book on gender issues within the Catholic Church," launches into a critique of the encyclical which does not concern me here.
Let us be frank. Assuming Benedict is actually waiting for a report, there are certainly pastoral reasons out there that supposedly justify an acceptance of condoms in order to protect young wives in Africa from whatever their husbands may carry home.
1. They have a plan for after? Allowing the use of condoms is merely a stopgap measure that does not solve the underlying problem. Do the cardinals and bishops who advocate the acceptance of condom use also have a plan for teaching Catholic men who are unfaithful about the damage they're doing to their immortal souls? I would really need to know a whole lot more about actual cases on the ground and how they're being handled before I would even begin to contemplate what is being suggested.
2. The global impact. In this day and age, if there were to be an acceptance of condoms, it would be traumatic for the Church. In a secularized world, such a move would be seen as a defeat. Condoms may only be tolerated in Africa, but they're still being tolerated and that would send a message to all kinds of groups. In the debates lately about the universal indult, the talk has been about reconciliation with the SSPX, etc. However, as commentators so often point out, there is much more than just the 1962 Missal. How would the SSPX react? For that matter, how would most faithful, orthodox Catholics react at a sudden reversal of such a central pro-life tenet?
Benedict XVI is a brilliant man. I trust him. My thought is that with so much else on his plate, pulling off a nuanced message on the use of condoms would be nearly impossible. Once the bell is rung, it'll be next to impossible to unring it.