When The New York Times reported May 1 that the Vatican was considering a change in its "condom ban," they referred to the news that Pope Benedict XVI "had requested a report on whether it might be acceptable for Catholics to use condoms in one narrow circumstance: to protect life inside a marriage when one partner is infected with HIV or is sick with AIDS."
The reality, Catholic News Service reports, is that the issue has been discussed for at least 10 years and is only at the consultative stage. Therefore, no document is imminent. Theologians, bishops, cardinals and curial officials have spoken out on all sides of the debate, which goes something like this:
Those who advocate for the moral use of condoms by married couples involving one HIV-infected partner usually base their arguments on the principle of "double effect." In Catholic moral thought, this principle states that an action that has both right and wrong effects is permissible if the action itself is not intrinsically wrong and the wrong effect is neither intended nor used as a means to the right effect. Additionally, there must be a reasonable balance between the good effect and the bad effect.
Applied to spousal circumstances, they say that while the Church opposes contraception, condoms themselves are not intrinsically evil. If the intent is not to contracept but to prevent the transmission of a deadly disease, then the good involved in the expression of sexual love between spouses proportionately overrides the unintended contraceptive effect.
Another argument cites that such condom use constitutes an exercise in self-defense on the part of the uninfected partner. Still another suggests that a condom here could be considered necessary medical intervention -- similar to a person who undergoes life-saving surgery that has the unintended effect of restricting one's childbearing capacity.
Those who oppose the exception say it does not fulfill the principle of double effect. While using a condom with the intention of avoiding a potentially fatal infection may not offend the procreative aspect of marital love, such a barrier is antithetical to its unitive purpose. Despite pure motives, introducing a condom creates a disorder in the couple's sexual relations and cannot be seen as a moral option. Besides, some add, condoms are far from fail-safe, so the risk is still significant.
For some, the issue is more pragmatic. If the Church were to allow this exception, it could be seen as a partial deterioration of Humanae Vitae ("Of Human Life"), Pope Paul VI's landmark 1968 encyclical on the regulation of birth. Seen through the lens of the secular media (which is likely to report any official change as "Church OK's Condoms," as one theologian told The New York Times), that shift could lead to the erroneous interpretation that the Church has approved a wider use of condoms. That could undermine not only the Church's teaching on sexuality and marriage, but also a broad spectrum of life issues, including abortion and euthanasia, where the Church's position has also been challenged.
It is not at all certain what may come of the present deliberations in Rome. It may take another decade before a statement is made, assuming one is released at all. Meanwhile, couples in these situations, rather than anticipate a change, should take up the matter with their confessor or spiritual director, keeping in mind that there remains a morally sound alternative that is guaranteed to prohibit sexually transmitted HIV: Abstinence.