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Papal theologian weighs condom use against AIDS February 01, 2005

Cardinal Georges Cottier, the theologian to the pontifical household, has said that condoms can be used in the battle against AIDS-- but only under highly limited circumstances.

Cardinal Cottier is the highest-ranking official at the Vatican to suggest that the use of condoms could be justified. But he emphasized that he was giving his own "strictly personal" opinion, and not speaking for the Holy See.

Speaking to the Italian press agency Apcom-- in a talk that was reported by the newspaper Corriere della Sera-- the Swiss cardinal said that the use of condoms "could be considered legitimate" when people are "prisoners" of unusual circumstances, and the condoms are used solely for the purpose of preventing the spread of disease.

Cardinal Cottier emphasized that only the presence of these unusual conditions would justify condom use. In ordinary circumstances, he said, the only morally acceptable means of fighting AIDS are through sexual continence. He also argued that the promotion of condom use "contributes to the risk of contagion" by encouraging promiscuous behavior.

The cardinal said that condom use is legitimate when it is a means of avoiding the transfer of the HIV virus during sexual intercourse. He observed that "along with life, there is the risk of also transmitting death" when one sexual partner is HIV-positive. In those circumstances, he said, "one must respect the defense of life," and heed the command, "Thou shalt not kill." Cardinal Cottier noted that many theologians take the same view, although there is a considerable difference of opinion among Catholic moralists on the topic. He took pains to clarify that he was not suggesting the use of condoms under ordinary circumstances, but only by those who are HIV-positive and sexually active. He reminded his interviewer that in Africa, where the AIDS epidemic is most advanced, several episcopal conferences have condemned condom-distribution campaigns. He observed that these campaigns "reflect the general cultural situation, marked by a very permissive approach to sexual practices."

The condom is certainly not the best means of curbing the epidemic, the cardinal continued. "It diminishes the danger of contagion, but that danger remains," he observed. The international organizations that are pressing for wider condom distribution are taking an approach that denigrates the dignity of human life and love, he said.

Moreover, Cardinal Cottier went on, the widespread use of condoms tends to aggravate the problem, by encouraging greater sexual activity. "We should not forget," he said, "that it was this same permissive approach which was indubitably a factor in the spread of the virus."

Cardinal Cottier made his statement at a time when prominent Church leaders have been engaged in a public discussion of the use of condoms. Last January, Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Brussels suggested that the use of condoms by HIV-positive individuals might be a "lesser evil" than the spread of AIDS. More recently, a spokesman for the Spanish bishops' conference said on January 19 that condoms have a legitimate role to play in the fight against the disease. Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, the president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care, responded to the Spanish statement by arguing that condom use is an "unacceptable" means of fighting AIDS.

Cardinal Cottier pointed out that Pope John Paul II has not spoken out on this particular topic, nor has he addressed the question of condom use in any teaching document. "He has, on the contrary, always insisted on the principles of respect for one another, for the meaning of marriage, for chastity, for one's own body, and for the importance and protection of human life," the cardinal observed.

As theologian to the pontifical household, Cardinal Cottier's task is to read papal statements and documents in advance, calling the Pontiff's attention to any theological questions or problems. As he emphasized, he does not speak for the Pope.