Steve Tomkins looks at the recent divisions within the Catholic church over the use of condoms and Aids
Those of us who are a little hazy when it comes to theological debates about transubstantiation know one thing about Catholic teaching. As Monty Python’s film The Meaning of Life put it, in a predictably un-devout musical summary:
Every sperm is sacred,
Every sperm is great,
If a sperm is wasted,
God gets quite irate.
But in some quarters recently there seems to have been some slippage in the Catholic position on condoms, and what looks like a split in the ranks.
Bishop Juan Antonio Martinez Camino, the secretary general of the Spanish Catholic Bishops Conference, made the ears of the faithful prick up when on January 18 when he announced to the press that “Contraception has a place in a global approach to tackling Aids”.
24 hours later, reportedly after pressure from the Vatican, the Bishops Conference took it all back. “It is impossible to advise the use of condoms,” they said. “Condom use implies immoral sexual conduct.”
And yet that didn’t stop Bishop Felipe Arizmendi of San Cristobal de las Casas, in Mexico, among others, coming out for the sheath the following day.
People who could not match the ideal of abstinence, said the Bishop, “should use whatever is necessary in order not to infect others and not to infect themselves”. But the next day, the Pope declared that the Roman Catholic rubber ban remained absolute.
The only way to counter Aids, he insisted, was through “education about the sacredness of life and... chastity and faithfulness”. And so the virus continues to infect 14,000 new victims a day, while the church continues to hold the sexual high ground.
Before we leap in and condemn the teaching of the Catholic church, we need to understand it - because for many non-Catholics the attack on family planning seems simply incomprehensible.
The official Catholic statement on this subject is Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. The fundamental point is that sexual intercourse was designed by God with a purpose: making children. Contraception takes, if you will, the tool that he has provided, while refusing to do the job he commissioned.
It is also unnatural, meddling with the natural fertility of marriage. It is arrogant, trying to be “the master of the sources of life” instead of “a servant of the creator’s design”.
If the church were to accept the use of contraceptives within marriage, we are told, they would become widely available, which “could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards”.
Men would come to regard women as sex objects. If instead we have no family planning but the rhythm method, we learn the value of chastity and self control.
So now having understood the teaching of the Catholic church, we are in position to condemn it. Whatever the rights and wrongs of poor couples having large families, and of condemning interference with nature while the Pope staves off death for another year with the best modern medicine astronomical wealth can buy, it all comes down to a matter of genocidal negligence.
AIDS has killed 20 million people in 24 years. It is ‘the worst catastrophe ever to hit the world ’ according to Unicef, and 40 million people now have it, the majority in Africa.
To its credit, the Catholic church is said to provide care for a quarter of all Aids cases, but then how many of them has it caused by refusing 100 million African Catholics the one available defense against it?
Worse still, the church has defended its position with a sickening campaign of misinformation. The archbishop of Nairobi, for example, has publicly blamed condoms for the spread of Aids, his priests reportedly telling his flock that they are laced with the virus.
The president of Rome’s Pontifical Council for the Family teaches that the virus ‘can easily pass through’. It is a particularly frustrating intransigence, because Humanae Vitae itself allowed Catholics to use contraceptives as a “necessary means of curing bodily diseases”.
And for an institution so fervent about the sanctity of human life, it is tragically wrongheaded to condemn so many to death for the sake of safeguarding sexual purity. To prefer principles to people, and saving face to saving so many lives, those priorities are badly screwed.
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