This past spring, an American group called “Catholics for Choice” (CFC) invaded Kenya with their “Condoms4choice” campaign. Through the use of billboards and news articles, this program is spreading the message that “good Catholics use condoms.” With this program, CFC is especially advertising the use of condoms as an acceptable way of preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. In response to CFC’s advertisements in Nairobi, Kenya’s Catholic bishops publicly rebuked the group for misrepresenting the teachings of the Catholic Church on the use of contraceptives—specifically emphasizing that the use of condoms is not morally acceptable.
“We take this opportunity to communicate to all who may be misguided by these adverts that the propagators are not an authority in the Church and are therefore speaking for themselves and on their own behalf,” stated John Cardinal Njue, chairman of the Kenya Episcopal Conference.
In their campaign, CFC is using a quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to claim that the Church supports the use of condoms. The quote comes from the Holy Father Emeritus’ book, Light of the World, in which he affirms, “She [the Church] of course does not regard it [condom use] as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.” One would think that Pope Benedict’s denial that condoms are “a real or moral solution” to the problem of the HIV/AIDS would not be used to promote condoms, but apparently CFC thinks its audience is not paying attention.
So CFC deliberately misrepresents Benedict’s statement, quoting only that using condoms is “a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality,” as if the Pope Emeritus supported the use of condoms.
Janet Smith helped many to understand the pope’s statement and had a memorable analogy for those of us not versed in moral theology:
The Holy Father is simply observing that for some homosexual prostitutes the use of a condom may indicate an awakening of a moral sense; an awakening that sexual pleasure is not the highest value, but that we must take care that we harm no one with our choices. He is not speaking to the morality of the use of a condom, but to something that may be true about the psychological state of those who use them. If such individuals are using condoms to avoid harming another, they may eventually realize that sexual acts between members of the same sex are inherently harmful since they are not in accord with human nature . . . .
An analogy: If someone was going to rob a bank and was determined to use a gun, it would better for that person to use a gun that had no bullets in it. It would reduce the likelihood of fatal injuries. But it is not the task of the Church to instruct potential bank robbers how to rob banks more safely and certainly not the task of the Church to support programs of providing potential bank robbers with guns that could not use bullets. Nonetheless, the intent of a bank robber to rob a bank in a way that is safer for the employees and customers of the bank may indicate an element of moral responsibility that could be a step towards eventual understanding of the immorality of bank robbing.
In determining the morality of an act, the action and the circumstances must be taken into account as well. In this case, the circumstance of using a condom during the sexual act renders the act morally evil. Therefore, whether using a condom as a preventative against HIV/AIDS or to avoid pregnancy, the act is still considered a moral evil, and is not condoned by the Church.
A few months before CFC came on the scene, the Kenyan government ran a TV advertisement that encouraged women involved in extramarital affairs to use condoms so as to limit the spread of HIV/AIDS. The ad was played on widely viewed channels at prime-time, exposing people of all ages to the pro-condom message. Numerous religious groups, including the Catholic bishops in Kenya, spoke out against this ad as promoting marital infidelity and sexual promiscuity. The TV advert was eventually pulled thanks to the persistence of Kenyan religious leaders.
Throughout this recent flare-up, the Kenyan bishops have remained faithful to the Church’s teaching on condoms and contraceptives. Indeed, they have been a strong voice of opposition in the public sphere to all of the anti-life messages assaulting their country. They know what is at stake in this condom issue. They have seen the negative effects of the promotion of condoms in countries with sky-high HIV rates and plummeting fertility. Cardinal Njue cautioned the nation, “Remember if the moral fibre of any nation is destroyed, then you have destroyed the nation as well.”
Having experienced this decline in morality in our own country, American Catholics should support the Kenyan bishops in this fight. Since the U.S. laws banning contraception were overturned in 1965, we have seen increased sexual promiscuity in our nation, abortion has been legalized, and marriage and the family have been under constant attack. “Catholics for Choice” should never be allowed to give the impression that they speak for Catholics or for the Church, despite the willingness of some media to add to this false impression. And we need to turn any misuse of Pope Benedict’s correct statement on condoms into a teaching moment. It is not a revolutionary Church teaching that the use of condoms is an immoral act, whether they are used to prevent pregnancy or HIV/AIDS. As Cardinal Njue asserts: “Condoms came in to control births even before HIV/AIDS came on and we already rejected that. Condoms are not the answer for that.”
We should be proud of the faithful Kenyan shepherds for their witness to the truth amidst such opposition. The Church has consistently spoken out against something as simple, yet detrimental, as a condom, and she needs to keep this anti-condom (and contraception in general) message in the forefront of her pro-life message.