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CRS, AIDS Prevention, and Condoms

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 01, 2008

Something of a furor exploded over the AIDS-prevention policies of Catholic Relief Services in late February when Russell Shaw and John Norton published a report on the agency’s new policies on condom information. Then a highly-respected moral theologian, Germain Grisez, questioned the moral probity of the new policies and called for an investigation.

The Shaw-Norton piece appeared in Our Sunday Visitor under the title Church Charity Mandates 'Full' Info on Condoms . The Grisez intervention is in the April edition of Catholic World Report, entitled The Church Betrayed?. One other item rounds out the essential reading on this question: Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1988 letter in which he guided the American bishops toward a better statement on AIDS prevention.

In the following points, I am summarizing my own understanding of current CRS policy. Briefly put, CRS proposes to handle the question of condoms in the following manner:

  1. CRS AIDS prevention always emphasizes abstinence before marriage and faithful monogamy within marriage.
  2. CRS provides condom information indirectly, through its affiliate organizations.
  3. CRS insists that full and accurate information on condoms be provided. In so doing, it claims the desire to address the following considerations: the avoidance of glib or misleading advice about “safe sex”; the need for people to understand that only abstinence is completely effective in preventing the spread of AIDS; and the importance of placing statistical data in a fuller context. In other words, while condoms do dramatically reduce infection rates when used consistently, studies show that their increased availability does not reduce infection rates, because of the attitudes and behaviors of users, which may be further exacerbated by a “condom mentality” toward sex.
  4. Literature on condom use produced by CRS (or anyone else, of course) may not have the CRS name or logo on it.
  5. Affiliates refusing to comply with CRS guidelines will, if prolonged discussion cannot resolve the issue, be dropped from CRS support.

When the U.S. Bishops’ Administrative Committee issued “The Many Faces of AIDS” in late 1987, the document accepted condom use as a sort of lesser evil. This raised a number of red flags, and the controversial document was widely criticized, including in the letter cited above by Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger pointed out that condom use cannot be accepted as a lesser evil because it in fact contributes strongly to the very immoral behaviors which give rise to the AIDS epidemic. When the entire body of U.S. Bishops issued a follow-up statement in 1989, “Called to Compassion and Responsibility: A Response to the AIDS Crisis”, they responded properly on this point. They got it right.

The question now is whether those who run Catholic Relief Services have gotten it right. Is their policy a genuine effort to be sure that condom information is properly presented while removing any possibility that this information could be construed as an endorsement of condoms by the Church? Or is their policy really a way of getting the nost of the camel into the tent? Germain Grisez argues that the latter is the case, and that the CRS policy is not only morally impermissible for a Catholic agency but also leads CRS to fall well short of what it should be doing to promote a genuinely Catholic ethos of love and life. He examines representative CRS materials to show that it would be quite possible for affiliates to refuse on moral grounds to distribute CRS materials from which the CRS name and logo have been withheld.

The Grisez analysis is persuasive, and this is not the first time that major institutional charities of the contemporary Church have gotten things terribly wrong (think of Catholic Charities going along with the adoption of children by homosexual couples, for example). My own instincts are to suppose that many leaders of such mainstream Catholic organizations do not hold fully Catholic views concerning sexual morality, do not possess sufficiently clear vision to persuasively articulate the benefits of living by Catholic principles, or do not have the courage to advance these principles against the prejudices of the larger culture. When that is the case, policies will often fall short of what they should be even if the policy-makers are trying to avoid a formal breach with Catholic teaching.

We see again that the Church is in the midst of a long and painful institutional renewal. It is no surprise that Catholic Relief Services must be added to the list.

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