Pregnant Pause in Papal Condom Ponderings

In April Pope Benedict ordered a theological and scientific study into condom use.

Reuters is reporting that the initial results of the study have been completed and have been passed on to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the spiritual successor to the inquisition) for further consideration and commenting before the report is eventually passed on to the Pope.

A study commissioned by Pope Benedict on the use of condoms to fight AIDS has passed its first hurdle and is now being reviewed by top theologians for possible use in a Papal document, a cardinal said on Tuesday.

“This is something that worries the Pope a lot,” said Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care.

The Catholic Church opposes the use of condoms and teaches that fidelity within heterosexual marriage, chastity and abstinence are the best ways to stop the spread of AIDS.

While this might mean a shift in the Catholic churches fight against condom use, it is unclear what, if any, effect this report might have. The report will not be made public which is fine, companies aren’t required to publish internal studies and there is no reason a church would need to do any differently. What I find interesting is that this study got commissioned in the first place. The Guardian reported some of the background to the study in April when it was first proposed.

The study comes only days after a contender in last year’s papal elections, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, challenged the Roman Catholic church’s official position by suggesting that condom use was the “lesser evil” in combating Aids.

I wonder if the church leadership in Rome is under pressure from the ‘frontline’ in developing nations. The power of African parishioners is growing both in influence and in raw numbers. The San Francisco Chronicle had a story about this when Benedict was elevated into the papal chair.

The Catholic Church is growing faster in Africa than on any other continent, with almost 150 million adherents in countries such as Nigeria, Tanzania, Angola and Botswana.

In 20 years, more Catholics may live in Africa than in Europe — a trend that has African Catholics hoping openly that an African will one day put on the papal robes of the Holy See.

Their dreams were not fulfilled last week. How close Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze came to being named pope is a matter of conjecture, but the fact that he was in the running is a sign that the future of the Catholic Church is in Lagos as much as it is in Rome.

Sub-Saharan Africa is also hardest hit by AIDS with UNAIDS estimating (pdf) that in 2006 24.7 million adults and children were infected, and there were 2.8 million new cases and 2.1 million deaths. Although South Africa was eventually able to force pharmaceutical companies to reduce (or eliminate) licensing costs for AIDS medications, all reports show Africa socially and economically collapsing under the effects of the epidemic.


“The Catholic Church is not a democracy” is a phrase widely repeated by bishops and priests. But if the only moral choice is between doctrine and death, I think all but the most calloused, dogmatic believers will come around to realistic, democratic ideas. Science is the ultimate democratic tradition and the science says condoms work.

This is something to keep an eye on. Not only for the theological and moral implications for the Catholic Church but the implications to abstinence only birth control/STD control programs being pushed by the American government and the evangelicals. The approval of condom use by the Catholics, even if only in the context of marriage and to prevent the spread of AIDS, would be a major blow to those evangelicals arguing that ‘abstinence only’ is an effective prevention. The opposite might mean not only the death knell for millions of individuals in Africa and thousands in Europe and America, but also for scientific reason. At least for STD programs in America.

Perhaps all we can do is pray. Somehow appropriate don’t you think?

(Hat Tip: Spiegel Online, German)

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