Saturday, April 22, 2006

HIV and Condoms or the Lesser Evil Defense

I want to discuss a topic that recently popped up in the media, namely, the morality or immorality of using condoms within a marriage where one of the spouses has HIV. I begin with an article from National Catholic Reporter website, John Allen's The Word From Rome column for April 21, 2006. You can find the article here. It has a section concerning comments from Cardinal Martini, former archbishop of Milan, advocating condoms for this reason. "Certainly the use of prophylactics can, in some situations, constitute a lesser evil." And Martini also says, "The question is really if it's wise for religious authorities to propagandize in favor of this method of defense [from HIV/AIDS], almost implying that other morally sustainable means, including abstinence, are put on a lower level."

To back up Martini's opinion, Allen includes another section of his column to other prominent theologians and bishops who back this approach. And finally, Allen adds another opinion from "Msgr. Angel Rodriguez Luño, an Opus Dei priest, a professor at Santa Croce University in Rome, and a consultor for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith," who "has said there's actually not much debate over the theology; most moralists, he said, believe the argument for condoms as a lesser evil is fairly clear. The question is how to explain that conclusion in a way that doesn't seem to offer a free pass for irresponsible sexual behavior."

Where to begin dismantling these responses? Clearly we are not talking about material cooperation with evil in the situation of a married couple who decides to use a condom because one of the spouses has HIV. Here in such a situation, there is formal cooperation with evil in destroying the meaning inherent in the conjugal act via a condom. The condom is not an evil object in itself. Let's be clear about that.

First, I find it very disconcerting that some Church officials seem to view sexual intercourse as the raison d'etre of the married couple. I guess these men have not understood the Church's teaching properly on the subject of marriage. I cannot find any such document that would tell me that for a holy marriage, one must have sexual intercourse constantly throughout a marriage or otherwise the marriage is not holy. Sexual intercourse is but a very small fragment of the married life. Indeed, at times, it has a very diminished role in the life of any good marriage. Marriage is much more about sharing the love of Christ with your spouse. And that takes the form of many different things. Being kind and caring about your spouse, helping out with the household, rearing children together, being prayer-filled and holy for the good of your spouse and family, and the list goes on and on.

When a couple finds itself in the situation of one of the spouses having HIV, maybe it should cause some reflection about how such a condition occurred and what God might be telling the couple regarding their life together. Maybe God is asking this couple to take on the life of continence. Certainly the couple may need counseling and help to understand God's role in all things. And if so desired, I have no doubt that a couple could live out a life of continence, with God's help, through prayer and the sacraments. In the early Church, you can find examples of when the man of a married couple became a priest, the couple would have to give up sexual intercourse for the rest of the marriage. More evidence of this can be found in The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy by Christian Cochini, S.J. I quote from Canon 29 of the 1st Council of Arles (314), "Moreover, [concerned with] what is worthy, pure and honest, we exhort our brothers [in the episcopate] to make sure that priests and deacons have no [sexual] relations with their wives, since they are serving the ministry every day. Whoever will act against this decision will be deposed from the honor of the clergy" (Cochini, 161).

Further, what would it say of the conjugal act and marriage itself if such an evil were permitted throughout the remaining years of a marriage. Does it not bespeak of a marriage whose unity has been destroyed? And for what, the gain of sexual pleasure? Is that what sexual intercourse has become, just for pleasure's sake? Marriage in such a context will no longer exist as an expression of the bond between Christ and the Church.

Second, I want to draw attention to the lesser evil defense. Let me illustrate with a very good and lucid example about the nature of choosing the lesser evil. In the two versions of the Exorcist Prequel movie, the main character is a fallen-away priest who has, to say the least, had a incident from the past that does not let go of him. He was a parish priest during the Nazi occupation, I don't remember which country exactly, but the priest tries to defend a group of townspeople who the Nazis want to murder. The Nazi leader in this town forces the priest either to choose a certain number of victims to kill or the Nazis will murder them all. So the priest is caught in a dilemma. Does he help the Nazis and save lives or does it let all in the group die? What would you do? In this case, the priest chose the "lesser evil" and chose people to be murdered by the Nazis and he saved lives in the end. Did he do the good thing? Of course not. That may shock some but it is true. The priest, in the end, did not have to commit any evil. He could have chosen to not do anything at all and let the Nazis kill everyone. Perhpas he even have struggled with them and then lose his own life in the process but atleast he would not have committed a grave sin. The priest should have chosen the huge sacrifice of himself and the others to stand up for what is good and holy. Instead he choose to cooperate with the Nazis and took it upon himself to decide who should live and who should die, which life was worth more and which was worth less. It is no wonder the priest lost his own humanity and his relationship to God because of this incident in the movie. When one wonders so far from God by such evil acts, how could they ever feel holy or close to God? And yet the priest, thinking only in terms of this life, did what he thought might be the better thing, namely, to choose the lesser of the two evils. The problem is that it was not the lesser because it measured evil only by this life and not by eternal life.

I think this example illustrations something inherent in our society's understanding of the human person. There is a problem with sacrifice. Who likes to sacrifice things anymore? In our culture of materialism and wealth and ease, sacrifice seems ridiculous and unbelievable. I mean, what kind of man in his right mind would turn down a high-paying/time-demanding job to spend more time with his family? Won't that extra money make things easier for his family and give them what they need? Human life has reduced itself to seeking pleasures in money, materials, the body, and others. We have become worse than animals in that we seek to debase ourselves in the pursuit of such things. Atleast animals instinctually go after what they desire. We have reason and a will. We can choose what we want and need. In the reduction of the human person, we have lost the illustrious norm of sacrifice, given to us by Christ himself in the Eucharist and on the Cross. Is it not service and sacrifice that define the human person? As Jesus tells us, it is in the giving of ourselves that we find ourselves.

No married couple with one spouse having HIV should ever have to choose evil. The right thing, the sacrifice, is to forgo sexual intercourse and take up a life of continence, for God. The couple should realize their place in the path to holiness and find new avenues of sharing their lives with each other. Giving up the conjugal act is not the end of marriage, but may be the new beginning of marriage for this couple. I mean, not to wander far off from what I want to say, but how did this spouse get infected in the first place? Was it through immoral activity? If so, then perpetuating more evil to occur within a marriage would be disasterous. Repentance, the sacraments, and prayer are needed more than anything. The conjugal act should be the last thing on this spouse's mind. Or did the infection occur through a blood transfusion or some other means not the fault of the individual? If so, what an unfortunate thing to have occurred. Many accidents occur to good people in life but that does not excuse them from the difficulties of the road to holiness. We all have our crosses and it is through God's grace that we can take them up and follow Christ in each day of our lives. "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" is not some ideal but can and should happen in our lives. It is not absolute perfection in this life but a perfection that shows our growth in charity towards that final day in which we will behold the face of God himself.

Finally, I want to offer a final rejoinder to what Msgr.
Luño said about most moralists believing the argument for condoms as a lesser evil is fairly clear. Please visit here. A good website, The American Papist, has a post containing articles concerning this issue HIV and condoms. Certainly there are moralists who disagree with this type of "lesser evil" approach. Please make use of these resources for more arguments about this issue.


Alypius said...

Hi James! A couple of comments:

I think you may be beating up a straw man when you say "some Church officials seem to view sexual intercourse as the raison d'etre of the married couple." I've scanned the articles, and I haven't seen them say that. Maybe you could add a quote from Martini or someone else supporting your contention?

I agree that the "lesser evil" argument is weak. It is attested in the tradition, but I don't think this is the approach that ought to be taken in the defense of the Church's teaching on contraception.

I also agree with you when you say, "The condom is not an evil object in itself." It is crucial for this issue to consider that the issue is contraception, not condoms. The question might be posed, "Is condom use ALWAYS contraception?" Obviously, no. Whatever two men do with a condom, it isn't contraception. So, "Is condom use by spouses ALWAYS contraception?" Again, no--a perforated condom may be used to collect sperm for fertility treatment.

I think your account of the spouses' "formal cooperation with evil in destroying the meaning inherent in the conjugal act via a condom" needs work. I don't buy it as it stands. Perhaps you could elaborate, with reference to what the Church actually proscribes, i.e., the act of contraception (not condom use), which is *carefully* defined in HV. Also consider the human act in light of VS 78.


James said...


Thanks for your comments. I want to comment on your last paragraph in more detail later, but at this moment I want to make a correction - in reference to what you perceive as a straw man.

First, I apologize for my phrasing regarding "some church officials," when in fact I should have referred to some theologians and bishops and priests as "some within the Church." There are plenty of dissenters of the Church's teaching in regards to sexual morality, but I need not label them as "some Church officials."

Second, I did not mean to say that I gathered this position from my reading of the articles concerning this issue. Rather, this position is not something explicitly proposed in the writings of dissenters but underlies the nature of arguments concerning certain contraceptive techniques within marriage, and perceived burden of expecting people to bear the "ideal" of continence. Indeed, this burden is too much for married couples (or same-sex people who need to integrate their the argument goes).

I hope this helps clarify atleast your first points.


Jeff Miller said...

Excellent post on the subject. The subject of married couples with HIV has garnered many comments on my Curt Jester blog recently and it is nice to see such a moral theology treatment of the subject.

Anonymous said...

It does not matter how a person aquires HIV. It is not their fault. It is not a punishment from God. It's a disease. Do you point a finger at the lazy, obese man who has a heart attack; that'it's all his fault? Or the smoker who gets cancer? I would hope you'd show them compassion instead of saying it's their fault.

Anonymous said...

James thank you very much for the post. This situation has bothered me a great deal. I know that what the Church teaches is for our GOOD and if we follow it it makes us the best we can be--on the road to becoming a saint. It bothers me that some are saying that these folks are somehow "less" than what they can be and ought to be. The teachings are TRUTH--so they are part of CHRIST right? We all deserve that right? Do we delegate to some people--these married HIV couples, an allowance because they are somehow "less". It reminds me of the 65 year old white lady who had a "normal" life, marraige family...everything went pretty well for her--but she believes in the right to abortion. She would have NEVER had one, but she says it must be there for the other's who need it...those people who are "less" is what she means. Those people who could not acheive her normal and noble life...

James said...

Dear First Anonymous Poster,

In the scheme of things, I have a difficult time giving the same sort of sympathy to those who contract such deadly viruses through immoral means as I would to those who contract deadly viruses through no fault of their own. I did not say HIV is God's punishment, but I am willing to say that it should be a wakeup call to those who have contracted it through immoral means; and for those who contract the disease through no fault of their own, it is no doubt a test to their faith and reliance on God.

I would hope and pray that all those who suffer with HIV would turn to God and find peace with Him, who alone can give peace and strength to those who suffer.


Anonymous said...

Well, Mr. Moral Theologian, maybe it's time to take the beam out of your eye before telling others they have a splinter in their's. Would Jesus have any less sympathy for those who aquired the disease by "immoral" means? I think not.

James said...

Dear Anonymous,

I presume this is a follow up about my comments to you. Jesus would have sympathy for those who desire forgiveness and mercy, not for those who desire to stay in the sinful ways of the world.

Anonymous said...

You didn't answer the question. Would Jesus have less sympathy for those who aquired the disease by immoral means? Your statements show little compassion for those who suffer from this disease because they shared dirty needles or had sex. Have you not made any bad choices in life? Have you not regreted things you've done? "Judge not, and ye shall not be judged; condemn not and ye shall not be condemned; forgive, and ye shall be forgiven." Luke 6:37

Katherine said...

I don't think James meant to imply he was perfect nor that such a disease isn't a terrible thing. However, I have to ask myself, how would I feel about someone who was randomly shot in a drive-by shooting and about someone who was shot resisting arrest by police for drug trafficking? Now, in both cases I would not be thrilled anyone was shot and in both cases the wound is an evil. However, the innocence of the person shot in the drive-by shooting would invoke more sympathy from me than the guilt of the person who CHOSE to put himself in the position where he might get shot. Both cases are unfortunate as in both cases a human being is wounded, perhaps killed, but the person who willfully chose to put himself in a position of risk must bear at least part of the culpability of his actions and at least part of the responsibility of the consequences. Jesus is most merciful, yes, but he is also most just. Now, suppose one does contract HIV via immoral means and then does sincerely repent. Sincere repentence would require acceptance of the consequences of one's actions, including, in this case, living with HIV. Such an action would not invoke sympathy from me but admiration for such a person would not be dying for someone else's sins but offering up their sufferings for their own sins as well as others. I would not want to feel sympathy for them but rather I would hope they would strive to be a living saint to others and a witness against those actions that lead them to where they are. Certainly all of us regret decisions, but I want no sympathy for negative consequences of my own stupidity or selfishness.

csc said...

Could you help explain your reasoning behind the statement,"The condom is not an evil object in itself?" I can understand how a piece of latex is not evil, but I do not understand how that same latex made into an object to be used for immoral purposes is not evil. Or is it just that "things" cannot be evil only actions? Please explain.

I can understand how a perforated condom is not evil in the case of a couple trying to assess their fertility, but in this case the device used to capture some sperm is not acting like a true condom. Does your statement imply that the condom is not wrong to use between homosexuals? It seems to me that their actions are immoral and the condom is allowing them to think they are safe and as such is helping them commit immoral acts. So my thinking is that it is evil because there is no case where it can be used in a moral way. Help me out here.

Anonymous said...

What exactly does "the wound is an evil mean"??? I work with the incarcerated as a volunteer with Catholic Detention Ministries in my diocese. I've been doing this for over 5 years and if I took your attitude into the jails, how many conversions of heart would there be? Don't get me wrong, we talk about resposibility and remorse for sins. But also of Christ's love and forgiveness. I can't believe how many self righteous Catholics I've come across on these blogs. Maybe you need to get out in the real world and do a little volunteering yourselves.

Katherine said...


I was using thomistic categoties regarding different types of evil. When I said, "the wound is an evil" I meant it in the Thomistic sense of a physical evil. Evil here referring to a privation of the whole as it was meant to be. In this definition, a broken leg is an evil. Cancer is an evil. I was not speaking as a moral evil. The "an" in my sentence was meant to relay that I was speaking of the wound itself as evil, not the action of the cause of the wound.
As for volunteering I used to volunteer quite a bit, especially at a local hospital. My time is not quite so easy to use toward volunteering as I gave birth to my first child 12 weeks ago. You might let me explain any uncertainty you have and ask how I spend my time before being condescending.

James said...


I apologize for taking time to respond to your comments. In my argument about the condom not being an evil object in itself, I was trying to elaborate about the nature of the conjugal act in light of human action. Sinful behavior occurs through human action and that is where the evil comes into the equation of understanding the sin and from where it comes.

Yes, you are right to point out a perforated condom and its possible licit uses for fertility studying purposes. Under the right circumstances, this would not be an object bring about an occasion of sinful activity. However, the usage of a condom to prohibit possible fertilization in the conjugal life of a married couple only adds in some sense to the sin occuring for the denying of the procreative purposes of sexual intercourse. While you could call a condom an evil object, the best thing to examine would be the human action involved in the conjugal act in light of the Church's teaching on the unitive and procreative dimensions of sexual intercourse.

I hope this helps.


James said...


You wrote: "You didn't answer the question. Would Jesus have less sympathy for those who aquired the disease by immoral means? Your statements show little compassion for those who suffer from this disease because they shared dirty needles or had sex. Have you not made any bad choices in life? Have you not regreted things you've done? "Judge not, and ye shall not be judged; condemn not and ye shall not be condemned; forgive, and ye shall be forgiven." Luke 6:37"

First, I believe that Jesus would feel sadness and pain for all who sin. Especially for those who persist in their sin and resist his mercy and love. He no doubt pursues these lost sheep with great care and love. But God cannot force Himself into the lives of those who sin if they do not desire God for themselves. So I believe Jesus would have sympathy in this sense, of feeling sadnessw and pain, for those individuals who sin and for the consequences of those sins.

Second, anyone who believes they are absolutely perfect in this life is a fool. I think we can agree with that.

Finally, I did not judge anyone - I have not spelled out punishment for those who get HIV. I leave the judgment of souls into God's hands. I would never speculate about whether this person will go to heaven or this person go to hell. So I don't see where you can argue that I judged someone.


Anonymous said...

judge: to form an opinion

condemn: to declare to be reprehensible, wrong,or evil

forgive: to cease to feel resentment against