THE CATHOLIC CHURCH laid down a tough, absolute law in the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae: no condoms, no abortion, no contraceptives. Never. Now the condom part of that rule is being reviewed, and if it is changed, expect new challenges to the entire contraception doctrine, to the doctrine of papal infallibility and even to the church's abortion rules.
Pope Paul VI, who wrote that encyclical, was merely reaffirming the church's standard teaching on artificial birth control with his absolute no-never. But many Catholics were surprised by his absoluteness because, well, it was the '60s for one thing, but it was also public knowledge that Paul's handpicked Papal Birth Control Commission had just recommended a relaxation of the contraception rules, though not unanimously.
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.
HIV is the deadliest infectious disease in the world and is still spreading. An estimated 4.1 million people were newly infected in 2005. Yet the U.S. church's massive and competent Catholic Relief Services never distributes condoms in the 94 AIDS-plagued countries where it operates. I hope that worthy organization will soon be filling out requisitions for condom shipments. And I hope that priests everywhere will begin to recommend condoms.
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.
And yet Humanae Vitae is not, in its reasoning, as absolute as one might think. Paul wrote: "A right conscience is the true interpreter
In a spectacular deviation from the normal quoting of Scripture and the teachings of the church fathers, Humanae Vitae asserts that natural law -- the law embedded in the universe -- forbids removing the possibility of procreation from the sexual act. The pope's premises and conclusions were based only on reason, no leap of faith required -- an almost unheard-of reliance on philosophy, not theology. His logic had to be flawless. But it wasn't.
Pope Paul's message was that it is immoral for a married couple to have sex merely to express mutual love, that they must also preserve the possibility of procreation. His logical mistake was to claim that the hapless rhythm method of birth control (periodic abstinence) could be approved because it retained an intrinsic link to procreation -- when, in fact, both partners were seeking to avoid procreation.
A few theologians pointed out Paul's errors publicly and incurred the wrath of the church. Charles Curran, for example, who led a group of protesting theologians, was forbidden to continue teaching moral theology at Catholic University.
It is difficult, and one has to be precise, to cite nature as an argument against any natural human endeavor. It is, after all, nature that creates dams, often kills fetuses, prevents conception more often than not, starves and kills animals pitilessly. Paul VI praised man's "stupendous progress in the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature." Condoms and contraceptives, like dams and appendix operations, seem like a good way to fulfill this duty.
Benedict's choice is a difficult one: Retain Humanae Vitae's absolute no-never and preserve the traditional ban on contraception, or shift to a relative yes-sometimes policy that gives us an effective weapon against AIDS -- but opens up church policy on contraception, abortion and infallibility to new challenges.