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Vatican hints condoms OK against AIDS

Signals in official newspaper point to reversal of 1988 position

Friday, September 15, 2000

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In what amounts to a theological U-turn, the Vatican's official newspaper has said that condoms may be permissible for containing the spread of the AIDS virus.

The article does not endorse condoms but tolerates their use as part of a comprehensive AIDS education program where the primary emphasis is on moral behavior. In 1988, the same Vatican newspaper denounced a similar argument made by a committee of the National Council of Catholic Bishops.

Bishop Anthony Bosco of Greensburg, a co-author of that 1988 statement on AIDS, said he now felt vindicated.

"This proves to me that maybe the logic that led me to that conclusion follows from sound moral principles. Maybe Cardinal [Joseph] Bernardin helped from heaven, because he was on that committee, too," Bosco said, in a reference to the late archbishop of Chicago, who died in 1998.

The new article ran in L'Osservatore Romano in April, but escaped further press attention until this month. It is analyzed in the Sept. 23 issue of America, a Catholic theological magazine published by the Jesuits. L'Osservatore Romano does not have the authority of a papal encyclical, but it is published by the pope and reflects the opinions of top Vatican officials.

The April article was written by the Rev. Jacques Suaudeau, from the Pontifical Council for the Family. He began with a moving description of how AIDS is eradicating the young people who should be the hope of sub-Saharan Africa and has made millions of orphans.

Suaudeau stressed that abstinence in singleness and faithfulness in marriage is the only sure way to prevent AIDS. Social conditions such as poverty and the oppression of women must also be addressed if AIDS is to be eliminated, he wrote.

But he then drew a key distinction between "prevention" of AIDS and "containment" of AIDS once it is present.

"[T]here is no hope of halting the HIV/AIDS epidemic with condoms alone, just as there is no hope of preventing a river from flooding by using sandbags when the main dikes have collapsed. One can only hope to contain it," he wrote.

Suaudeau cited statistics on the high rate of condom failure, but said that the church is concerned with morality, not technology. In a study of prostitutes and their clients in Thailand, "condoms had particularly good results for these people with regard to the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases," he wrote.

Although unjust social conditions that lead to prostitution must be addressed, "the use of prophylactics in these circumstances is actually a 'lesser evil,' " he wrote.

That is a far cry from 1988, when the Vatican attacked "The Many Faces of AIDS," issued by the administrative board of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The offending passage said that when people refuse to refrain from dangerous sexual behavior or intravenous drug use, "educational efforts, if grounded in the broader moral vision [of sexuality], could include accurate information about prophylactic devices or other practices proposed by some medical experts as potential means of preventing AIDS. We are not promoting the use of prophylactics, but merely providing information that is part of the factual picture."

L'Osservatore Romano responded, "To seek the solution to the disease in the promotion of the use of prophylactics is to take a path that is not only unreliable from a technical point of view, but also and above all, unacceptable from a moral point of view."

The bishops buried "The Many Faces of AIDS" after Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, denounced it in a letter to the Vatican's representative to the United States.

"[I]t hardly seems pertinent to appeal to the classical principle of tolerance of the lesser evil. ... In fact, even when the issue has to do with educational programs promoted by the civil government, one would not be dealing simply with a form of passive toleration but rather with a kind of behavior which would result in at least the facilitation of evil," Ratzinger wrote.

Bosco had urged his fellow bishops to say that condom use was the lesser of two evils for both married couples where one spouse was HIV positive and for those who would not refrain from promiscuity.

He was prompted to take the stand because of his contact with Catholic health-care workers.

"They had patients who said they were sexually active, they intended to remain active and they were HIV positive. If you try to persuade them to be abstinent, you don't get anywhere with them. Well then, in the name of God, at least don't spread the infection," Bosco said.

James Hanigan, professor of moral theology at Duquesne University, said that Suaudeau's article was in line with accepted teaching on the birth control pill, which is permitted to correct severe menstrual irregularities, even though it also prevents conception.

"The direct effect is to prevent the transmission of disease, even though there is a double effect," he said. "I think people who work with high-risk populations will be happy about this. Whether it's going to have much extension beyond that is hard to say."

The authors of the America article, Dr. Jon Fuller, a Jesuit priest and medical doctor specializing in the treatment of AIDS and the Rev. James Keenan, a moral theologian, said they had seen this change coming for several years. More than 25 Catholic theologians have published similar arguments with no repercussions from Rome, they wrote. Since 1995 the only protests have been from diocesan bishops.

"Without known interference, the Vatican has allowed theologians to achieve this consensus. Vatican curial officials now seem willing publicly to recognize the legitimacy of the theologians' arguments. Hesitant local [bishops] will in turn, we hope, note Monsignor Suaudeau's tolerant signals and more easily listen to the prudent counsel of their own health care and pastoral workers and their moral theologians," they wrote.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, believes the L'Osservatore Romano article slipped under the radar of the Vatican press corps in April because the pertinent passages were buried deep in the story and couched in subtle theological language. The headline on the English-language edition was "Prophylactics or Family Values? Stopping the Spread of HIV/AIDS."

"I think most readers in Rome saw the headline, said, 'Same old story' and turned the page. It wasn't until a sophisticated ethicist like Jim Keenan read the entire article that he noted something significant," Reese said.

"I think this is classic Vatican procedure. They always want to emphasize continuity, not change."


The America article is available online at www.americapress.org/articles/fuller-keenan.htm.

The Web site for the English edition of L'Osservatore Romano is www.vatican.va/news_services/or/or_eng/index.html. The article by Suaudeau is no longer online.



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