The following which has been sent to all priests involved in pastoral work in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto has been provided to us by friendly sources.  Although marked “confidential,” we have no hesitation reprinting it.  The matter is of public concern and has been publicly and widely discussed, first after the Toronto Sun revealed the use of condoms by Covenant House in December 1987, and then especially following our article on the same subject in our February 1988 issue.

The cover page is on letterhead of the Cardinal’s office.  It is marked Confidential with the date April 27, 1988, and the single line: “The attached decision of the Episcopal Council was taken after careful consideration and is forwarded for your information.”

The document proceeds as follows:

“The Symposium held by and for the clergy of the Archdiocese of Toronto on April 19th of the current year, explored for us the medical, ethical, pastoral and spiritual aspects of the disease called AIDS and our proposed response to it in these areas.  While none of our speakers addressed the subject directly, one area of our responsibility needs to be somewhat clarified.  Before addressing this topic we wish to reaffirm the findings of the symposium, namely that we are prepared to do all in our power to combat this dreadful disease and to treat its victims with support and compassion.

The question which is relevant to the present statement is the problem of the introduction of prophylactic devices called condoms.  It is quite clear that the use of such devices is contrary to Catholic teaching.  The problem, then arises on the use of such instruments to cut down the risk of the transmission of disease.

Immoral ways

The concrete difficulty has risen through the distribution of such instruments by Covenant House, a Catholic Institution.  At a certain point, Covenant House initiated the use of a street van and in their ministry to the street kids they found that in spite of their best efforts some of the young people, particularly young men, were adamantly intent on continuing their immoral ways and could not be dissuaded from further promiscuity.  The agents of Covenant House would do everything in their power to show these young people the error of their ways and to insist on the value of chastity in all life relationships.  However, when they failed completely to convince and when it was the express intent of the persons involved to return to their practices they warned them of the danger of AIDS and other social diseases and, as a last resort, they distributed condoms.

Taking though as to the consequences of their actions in view of their Catholic affiliation the authorities of Covenant House reported their position to the Archdiocese explaining all the protection and precautions which are mentioned above.  At this juncture we submitted the case to the best theologians available and received a response which merited and received our attentive study.  In a word, the use of such devices in homosexual relationships does not change the immorality of the act, but had a positive use in the prevention of disease.  In view of this response we did not restrict the action of the authorities at Covenant House but took the matter under further advisement because, as we will outline, other factors appear to be involved.

Tolerating the practice

In the moral atmosphere in which we live, what is the impression given by a Catholic Institution distributing such instruments?  Will it not be perceived that we are at least indifferent to what is going on and at worst that we are either encouraging or at least tolerating the practice?  In spite of all the precautions and restrictions and recommendations with which we surround such an action, the perception of the public in  general must be that we are at least indirectly contributing to this practice.  It is also evident that the average person, the average good and well-intentioned Catholic, will have  difficulty making the distinctions which are made by moral theologians.  They will see in our attitude an infraction on the standards of the Church in regard to morality and a failure to promote the teaching on chastity which is so essential to our times.

With all of this in mind we have come to the conclusion that we must notify the authorities of Covenant House that they are required, in spite of their very best intentions, to cease and desist from the practice of distributing any prophylactic devices to the young people they counsel whether in the House or in the van.  We take this action with the greatest respect for their good will and good intentions but since they have called upon the judgment of the Archdiocese we must decide in accordance with our principles.”

Editorial note

The Interim is of course pleased with the decision to suspend the use of condoms by Catholic agencies.

The Symposium on AIDS mentioned in the first paragraph is reviewed (unfavourably) elsewhere in this issue.

One notes that the Toronto Bishops continue to defend the position that “the use of (the condom) in homosexual relationships does not change the immorality of the act,” this in contradistinction from the those who hold that the use of the condom inevitably adds to the malice of the act by encouraging the user to carry on more confidently under one or more false beliefs (that it is safe or safer; that it is somehow approved or at least not totally disapproved).

Moral theologians

The letter notes that the public in general will misunderstand the situation of necessity, while the Catholic laity “will have difficulty making the distinctions which are made by moral theologians.”  The implication seems to be that both the general public and the Catholic laity lack the expertise to arrive at a true understanding of the issue.

Our own view is that in this case, the laity sees much more sharply that “the best theologians available,” whose analyses they recognize for what they are: exercises in rationalization separated from concrete human experience and, perhaps, even from true gospel values.