Letters From a Young Catholic

My reflections as a Catholic young adult passionate about the Faith, seeking to grow in knowledge and understanding of God and discerning the will of the Lord in my life.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Vatican, Condoms, and AIDS?!

Ok. So everyone's talking about it. "The Vatican" (by which I think the media means to say the Magisterium) is looking into the question of the use of condoms by married couples who have aids. This article by CNN says "the Vatican is studying whether condoms can be condoned to help stem the tide of AIDS."

I've read some really good discussions out there in recent days on the issue and because I think it's an important topic I decided I'd wade in. While my qualifications to comment on this don't go much further than the fact that I'm a baptised and confirmed practicing Catholic, I thought I'd join in anyways. Like I said, there are others out there much more qualified to discuss this matter than a twenty-year old without even a degree to her name, but then again, it's my generation that is going to have to live with the consequences of this.

Now, there are many points to be made on this issue and of course we could get into a wonderful discussion of the Theology of the Body and how any form of contraception in the marital embrace means that the act involves a less than totally free, full, faithful and fruitful gift of self (Humanae Vitae), but I'm not going to delve into that discussion at this point because I don't have the time right now to do justice to this beautiful teaching.

I just wanted to point out though, that in the midst of all this media frenzy and blog posting about the Magisterium investigating the issue of the use of condoms by married couples living with AIDS few people seem to be remembering that Pope Paul VI also asked questions and sought expert advise from a commission of theologians and other experts on the question of contraception prior to writing Humanae Vitae. He was given reports by the commission which advised that the use of contraception be aproved by the Church. In his wisdom and guided by the Holy Spirit the Holy Father understood though, despite what he was told in the reports he had commissioned, the evil of a contraceptive mentality and came out with Humanae Vitae which clearly explained the immorality of contraception.

So, here's my summary of what took place in the 1960s with the commissions on contraception. I'm telling you all this because I think it is very relevant to the discussion today on AIDS and condom use.

In the 1960s, the era of the pill and the sexual revolution, many questions were being asked about the morality of contraception and there was a lot of confusion and uncertainty on the matter among the faithful (and the clergy!). During Vatican II, which was going on at the time, there were conversations regarding revisiting the issue of contraception. Up to that point, most had understood the Church's objection against contraception to be based on a rejection of barrier contraceptives, that is, placing a barrier between the wife and husband (generally speaking condoms). In the 1960s though, as the pill was developed and made more widely available, people began to question whether the oral contraceptive pill was acceptable to Christians since it wasn't a barrier. This wasn't a new question (see Lambeth Conference of 1930) but rather came to the forefront during this time when the pill was growing exponentially in popularity.

In 1963, Pope John XXIII organized a papal commission to study the issue of contraception. When he died, the results of the commission were to be given to Pope Paul VI. The reports, known as the majority and minority reports, were leaked via memos obtained by the National Catholic Reporter that were intended to be communicated only to the pope. Both reports acknowledged that the pill was contraceptive. The majority report (reflecting the views of the majority of experts involved in the commission) said that the pill (and contraception) should be allowed, while the minority report (reflecting the minority views) said that contraception was immoral.

In the furore surrounding the publication of the encylical, stories appeared in the press that it was the commission's majority recommendation that the Church relax its stance on birth control but that the Pope had suppressed the so-called "Majority Report." Based on what was leaked of the "Majority Report" many people expected Pope Paul VI to change the Church's stance on contraception. They got carried away by what was being said in the media before the Holy Father had spoken on the matter. Many, both faithful and clergy, became so convinced that the Church was going to be changing its stance on the matter in the imminent future that they already began encouraging and adopting contraceptive practices.

We all know how the story goes from here though. Pope Paul VI was given the reports of the commission and I'm sure he read through them very carefully and thoroughly. And yet what did we get? Humanae Vitae. In other words, the fact that the majority of experts on the commission recommended that contraception be allowed did not change the Church's teaching on the matter. Ultimately, bottom line is that, the Holy Spirit is guiding and protecting the Church. The Roman Catholic Church is not a democracy. The Magisterium engages with the modern world by asking these questions, forming commissions, and seeking answers, but ultimately it is the Holy Spirit that is guiding us through these complex problems. It always has been, is, and always will be ultimately the Holy Spirit who guides the Magisterium in Truth.

I think it's a good that these questions with regards to AIDS and condoms are being asked, but I don't think that we should jump to the conclusion that just because the questions are being asked the teaching of the Church on the matter is going to change. I think we should care about the problem of AIDS. I think we need to better understand the complexities of the problem of AIDS. I think we should be doing something. I personally don't think contraception is the solution. Contraception fails. If we're talking about married couples and the issue of condoms and AIDS, eventually the spouse without AIDS will become infected because eventually the contraceptive method will fail. Even condoms had a 99% success rate (which no contraceptive does, barrier or not), eventually, the health spouse would become infected. It may slow the spread of the disease, but it doesn't seem to be the solution.

All this being said, I personally will wait for Peter to speak on the matter before jumping to any conclusions.