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.