Human Nature: Catholic Thought and the Sciences/Contraception and HIV
Although there have recently been high-level Vatican discussions about allowing contraception within marriage for purposes of disease prevention, current doctrine does not allow the use of contraception under any circumstances. Thus the widespread Catholic efforts at preventing the spread of HIV focus on awareness and opposing misinformation and stigma, HIV testing, and promoting abstinence outside of marriage.
Effectiveness of Promoting Contraception for Disease Prevention
The question of whether the abstinence-only approach is more or less effective at preventing the spread of HIV than an approach incorporating the promotion and distribution of barrier methods of contraception is an empirical one proper to the social sciences. There is a wide range of research addressing this question. (e.g. Sexual abstinence only programmes to prevent HIV infection in high income countries: systematic review)
While this research is relevant to the moral debate over contraception education and distribution, it should also be recognized that it is only one aspect of the moral question. Even if distributing contraception is more effective for preventing the spread of HIV on average, the case can be made that it is better to promote abstinence outside of marriage as both a moral imperative and as the only 100% effective way to avoid transmitting HIV. Yet, the presuppositions about human nature underlying this moral view may also be confronted with scientific evidence.
Morality of Contraception within Illicit Sex
Prof. Martin Rhonheimer, an Opus Dei priest, explains the moral theology of contraception outside of marriage for the Tablet:
- [If persons ignore the Church's teaching on marriage], and are at risk from HIV, should they use condoms to prevent infection? The moral norm condemning contraception as intrinsically evil does not apply to these cases. Nor can there be church teaching about this; it would be simply nonsensical to establish moral norms for intrinsically immoral types of behaviour. Should the Church teach that a rapist must never use a condom because otherwise he would additionally to the sin of rape fail to respect mutual and complete personal self-giving and thus violate the Sixth Commandment? Of course not.
- What do I, as a Catholic priest, tell Aids-infected promiscuous people or homosexuals who are using condoms? I will try to help them to live an upright and well-ordered sexual life. But I will not tell them not to use condoms. I simply will not talk to them about this and assume that if they choose to have sex they will at least keep a sense of responsibility. With such an attitude I fully respect the Catholic Church's teaching on contraception.
Pope Benedict XVI himself has recently affirmed this approach in a book-length interview:
- "There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality."
- Interviewer Peter Seewald: Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?
- "She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be, nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the infection, a first step in the movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality."
The Vatican has further clarified that the Pope was not referring only to sexual acts without the potential for reproduction.