Catholic World News News Feature
Condomolatry March 05, 2003
If is no secret that for some years now, a growing number of Catholic organizations in England and Wales have been speaking out against official Church teaching on sexual morality. Worse still, some of these bodies are linked to the English and Welsh Bishops' Conference. At a time when clerical sex-abuse scandals dominate the headlines, lay people are abandoning the Church in droves, and some dioceses have no new candidates for the priesthood, the need for unity among Catholics is enormous, and the negative consequences of public dissent are devastating.
While there are many people in Catholic organizations doing excellent work, there are others who dissent from Church teaching--with the apparent blessing of the bishops.
Last November, a Catholic agency--funded in part by the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, the development arm of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales--was in open rebellion against Catholic teaching on artificial contraception. The Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR), a lay-run organization based in London, caused a storm of protest after advocating the use of condoms to combat the spread of AIDS.
The organization issued a statement which claimed that condom use was not contrary to the Church's teaching, and the distribution of condoms could even be seen as a "pro-life activity." The statement, released at CIIR's annual general meeting, argued that "any holistic and effective approach to HIV" had to recognize the role of condoms as "a life-saving option." CIIR insisted that such an approach must not be considered as "counter to Church teaching." The group alluded to "a diversity of views within the Church about the role of condoms in tackling HIV," and drew a contrast between the official teaching of the Church and the actual practices of Catholic social workers.
MOVING ON AFTER HUMANAE VITAE
Christine Allen, CIIR's chief executive, went further. "What we are trying to say is that there is a sense in which the world has moved on so much from when Humanae Vitae was written and the AIDS pandemic is so different," she said. She elaborated:
We are taking a holistic approach that says: Yes, we must have the ideal but it's naive and not very helpful to totally disregard the use of condoms to prevent the transmission of death.
This is not just about sex, and we are not saying that condoms are the only answer. It is feasible to see the use of condoms as a pro-life activity if they are reducing the transmission of death. We would say this is not anti-Church teaching, as within Church teaching there is space for debate.
By Church teaching we do mean the teaching of the magisterium, but there is a dissonance between what is said at the top and the pastoral care practiced where people like religious are working in home-care centers for AIDS sufferers. They are under a terrible burden trying to fulfil the Gospel values under the weight of the official line. They don't see the teaching resonating with those who they see suffer every day. In this context where people are not following the teaching of the Church and don't want to, condoms can be an expression of responsibility and treating the other person with dignity. Speaking at the same meeting was Bishop Kevin Rowling of Rustenberg, South Africa, who last year asked the South African bishops to open up a debate on whether condoms should be used in marriages where one partner is HIV-positive. In a keynote speech, the bishop described how the South African bishops had "rejected outright the use of condoms, but did admit that there were problems in terms of marriage where the husband was HIV-positive." Bishop Rowling demanded that the Church rethink its theology on AIDS. After his presentation, in an interview with the Catholic Times, the bishop said: "The greatest sadness of my ministry is that the Church is doing greater caring work for AIDS and HIV sufferers than the government, but all its programs are undermined by the simple fact that people say: 'You don't allow condoms.'"
Dr Helen Davies of the National Association of Ovulation Method Instructors (NAOMI), a lay group teaching natural family planning (NFP), observes:
We all know that there are bishops in the Western world who dissent from the Church's teaching. To be fair to this particular bishop, he is probably deeply worried about the extent of AIDS in his own diocese. But his agenda is to justify his dissent from Church teaching.
He should be aware that people who promote condoms have vested interests and use every means open to them to bribe African countries. The Catholic Church is working hard in these countries to promote chastity and natural family planning. All the latest reports in medical literature say that condoms have not reduced the risk of AIDS. Even using condoms, there's always a risk that AIDS can be passed on. You can't afford to take any risk with something so dangerous as AIDS. It's like playing Russian roulette.
The dissenters like to paint those who follow Church teaching as naive or as being hung up on sex. This is a red herring. I'd like to say to them in turn that they're naive. The Catholic Church is right about this and will be proven right. It hasn't changed what it believes one bit. Condoms have been used against AIDS since the early 1980s but AIDS is still as deadly and shows no signs of regressing.
SHORT SHRIFT FOR NFP PROGRAMS
Dr. Davies, like other Catholic experts in her field, is concerned by the close relationship between CIIR and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD). Last year, CIIR which works with people in Africa and Latin America, received a CAFOD grant of £191,475 (about $300,000). CIIR is also listed in the Catholic Directory, published on behalf of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. The privilege of inclusion in the Catholic Directory is not accorded to all Catholic organizations; some groups that are fully in line with Church teaching have been unable to make the list.
In early December CAFOD's outgoing director, Julian Filochowski, launched a blunt attack on Catholic critics of CAFOD's policy on AIDS and HIV. [Editor's note: The CAFOD director is no stranger to intramural Catholic controversy. In June 2001, Filochowski held a public ceremony to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his partnership with Martin Pendergast, a leading homosexual advocate. The event was held at Heythorp College, a Jesuit institution, and the invitations promised the presence of Bishop John Crowley of Middleborough. After public reports of the plans caused an uproar, Bishop Crowley pulled out of the event.] Speaking at the aid agency's 40th anniversary celebrations, Filochowski, said:
There have been a number of vocal critics of this work in [newspaper] letters' columns by self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy who cost us hours and hours of worry and staff time. Our critics on AIDS are not our bishops. These self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy don't trust CAFOD and they don't trust our bishops.
But trust has to be earned, not simply demanded. And so-called "guardians of orthodoxy" have every right to question their bishops and representatives of Church-sponsored agencies if there is any doubt over the groups' commitment to Catholic teaching. Or is the debate only open to those disagree with the Church? In England and Wales, this would seem to be the case.
AN EARLIER CALL FOR CONDOM USE
Last September another agency of the bishops' conference published an ambiguous report which seemed to sanction the use of condoms by homosexual AIDS sufferers in jail. The document, produced by the Catholic Agency for Social Concern (CASC), called for "preventative measures" to deal with rising numbers of prisoners infected with HIV/AIDS. Although the report did not specifically refer to condoms, it cited World Health Organization guidelines which state that all AIDS prisoners have the right to receive "health care, including preventative measures equivalent to that available in the community."
Leading the criticism against the document was Dr. Michael Jarmulowicz, master of the Guild of Catholic Doctors. In an interview with the Catholic Herald, he argued:
People who are HIV-positive should be encouraged not to have sex. The latest figures from the National Institutes of Health in the United States says condom use reduces transmission by 85 per cent--which is not zero. What the Church should be saying is that we should be helping to eradicate the spread of HIV, but what it is saying is that prisoners who are in jail to be punished, should have access to sex. Gay sex is something that the Church should be critical of anyway. The Church should be saying we are not supporting this--full stop. The Church should be saying that sex should be confined to marriage, not, 'Well, we will support the use of condoms in these circumstances.'
The dispute over the document deepened when CASC's director, Sarah Lindsell, declined an opportunity to deny that the term "preventative measure" referred to condom use. She said: "Preventative measures for anybody would mean different things...one of those measures will be condoms. I wouldn't like to condemn or condone any individual's choice, and we shouldn't be doing that, but I would promote other alternatives."
Lindsell retracted her comments the following week at a press conference in the presence of Bishop Terence Brain of Salford. In spite of the clear statement by Lindsell, who had supervised the production of the CASC statement, Bishop Brain, who is chairman of the bishops' committee for social welfare, denied that the document was intended to promote condom use among the prison population.
This was not the first time that Lindsell--whose background includes work as a children's newspaper advice columnist or "agony aunt"--had landed in trouble with Catholic critics. In her column in The Universe newspaper last August, she revealed that a 14-year-old girl had written to her to say she had feelings for her female math teacher. In her response, Lindsell wrote: "My advice would be to pray hard and follow your conscience."
SUPPORTING CATHOLIC OPTIONS
At the other end of the spectrum, many Catholics long for the day when the bishops, their advisors, and Church-sponsored agencies will promote and chastity natural family planning with the same enthusiasm some Church representatives now exhibit for condom use.
Last July, Fertility UK--the NFP arm of Marriage Care, an organization partly funded by the bishops--was forced to abandon its service after a crucial government grant was withdrawn. As a result, Catholic couples who want to learn about NFP have to rely on word-of-mouth or the internet to find a service in their area.
According to Greg Clovis, an expert in Church-approved family-planning methods, the biggest increase in the use of NFP is among young couples. Clovis, who pioneered SAFE, a self-taught NFP program based on the Billings Method, explains:
Young people are seeing the sheer devastation of what's happening in our culture with teenage pregnancy and divorce. Ten to 15 per cent of those we're talking to in Catholic schools are totally rejecting the idea of contraception and abortion. A lot are still in the 'I don't know' stage.
Clovis' observations should at least prick the consciences of Catholic leaders. After all, it is the job of the bishops, and not the laity, to proclaim the Church's teaching in all its fullness. The hierarchy would do well to disentangle itself from vested-interest groups and channel its energies into promoting the essential truths of the Catholic faith.
[AUTHOR ID] Tara Holmes is the former deputy editor of the Catholic Times. She now works as a freelance journalist in the United Kingdom