In February 1988, The Interim published a news report about Covenant House, a Catholic social agency in Toronto.  The report dealt chiefly with the agency’s policy of handing out condoms to clients judged a risk for catching AIDS.  Indeed, the initiative for the story flowed from an article on “street kids” in the Toronto Sun in December 1987, which reported that personnel in the agency’s van handed out condoms.  The Sun reporter expressed surprise that a Catholic agency would permit this.

The Interim, too, was surprised when it discovered that handing out condoms was part of a policy approved by officials of the Toronto Archdiocese.

At the time the article was being researched and written, The Interim was aware that an ecclesiastically-approved policy of fighting AIDS by handing out condoms – even to a select and narrowly circumscribed clientele such as “street kids” and prostitutes – cut right across a broader discussion on what and how to teach students about AIDS in schools.

In Canada this discussion started with the Ontario government’s announcement in the fall of 1986 mandating AIDS education in the schools.  Catholic schools were to have their own programme, but public school boards were encouraged to have full discussions on the condom and its use.  Some Catholic trustees, objected to a similar policy in Catholic schools.  Harold Adams, trustee for the Metropolitan Separate School Board (Toronto), for example, declared that the Roman Catholic Church is firm in its teaching – the condom is prohibited because it can also be used to prevent pregnancy, not just disease. (Globe, Jan. 21, 1987).

Toronto Archdiocese

On January 27, 1987, the Toronto Archdiocese, through moral theologian Jack Gallagher, issued a statement on AIDS education.  It insisted that such education should be geared to the development stage of students; should be presented within a proper Catholic ethical context; should insist that genital sexual activity be restricted to monogamous marriage; and should be explained clearly to parents and the general public beforehand.

The statement added that, “one should include in the programme the technical information about the use of condoms or other methods to avoid the disease.”  This was seized upon, by the press, as proof that the Catholic Church, in Toronto, had approved the use of condoms.

While media and society carried endless stories about the “great anti-AIDS condoms debate,” the task of writing an AIDS curriculum for the Catholic school system was handed to the newly formed Institute for Catholic Education under Msgr. Dennis Murphy.  The first draft alarmed interested Catholic parents by its secular nature.  Later on, The Interim’s editor, Sabina McLuhan, examined the programme in three articles (November, December 1987; February 1988) and found it contained serious flaws from a parent’s point of view.

The course ignores the homosexual connection to AIDS and the grave nature of homosexual acts.  It contains misinformation about the various ways the AIDS virus may be transmitted.  It emphasizes the factual and technical aspects of the use of the condom, but says little about the need for chastity.  What it says is uninspiring, with moral values and concepts such as sin not spelled out.  It ignores problems of discussion intimate sexual matters in mixed classes for children at different levels of sexual and emotional development.

Ineffective and harmful?

The course may well prove ineffective against the spread of AIDS.  Certainly sex education hasn’t done anything about teen pregnancy.  Meanwhile, the authors acknowledge the lack of Catholic content and recommend that it not be taught in isolation from religious or family studies.  This is hardly an excuse.  It won’t work, as it didn’t in a recent case where the Physical Education teachers took hold of it and taught the course in one day to get it ‘over and done with’ without reference to religious or family studies.

The course received ecclesiastical approval by means of a warm letter from Cardinal Carter to Catholic teachers in November 1987.  The letter, full of goodwill, indicates that the church in Ontario is counting on the teachers to get everything right, a confidence not shared by many parents.  Almost certainly, for example, many teachers will resort to films and teacher aids of a totally secular cast.

As experience has shown already parents’ meetings too, will be of limited value, if they are held at all.  They will not help in improving the quality of teaching.   A few experts will intimidate many parents.  The meetings will be short.  Parents will be ill prepared.  Most won’t have seen the course of study or recognize omissions and errors. Others won’t be able to express their feelings.  The ‘experts’ (in curriculum, not in parenting) will smooth over everything.  The parents, who don’t care, won’t care. Those who do care, will suffer when they see the innocence of their children upset or destroyed by thoughtless talk.

One Ontario diocese attempted to salvage a basically flawed programme by dropping all references to oral, and of vaginal intercourse.  (Kingston, Jan. 29, 1988).  But school boards elsewhere were busy going in the opposite direction.  The Waterloo Separate School Board, for example, had taken a different position as early as February 1987.

Waterloo R.C. School Board

Immediately following the January 1987 Gallagher statement on behalf of the Toronto Archdiocese, the WSB, in the diocese of Hamilton, took the position “that we have a moral obligation to provide this information.”  It projected two principles, that of the Common Good and of Double Effect.  The Principle of the Common Good, it said in a letter to teacher dated February 11, 1997, demands that action be taken to fight AIDS, including the use of condoms:

“As morally unacceptable and as deplorable as this is, the horrendous dangers posed by AIDS, both to individuals and to society, lead this Board to endorse the action recommended by the Ministry of Education and the Department of Health regarding the use of recommended condoms where there exists a likelihood and/or possibility of the transmission of this deadly disease by those who engage in sexual activity either wrongfully outside married state of legitimately with in.

The Principle of Double Effect is explained as follows:

“Two effects flow, one good and one evil, from an essentially good or at least neutral act; if the evil effect is unintended and not a direct result of the act, and if the good effect is proportionate to the evil effect, the act itself is legitimate. (e.g., If use of a condom will prevent a mass number of deaths worldwide and this is the intention behind its use then the use of condoms is justified and supercedes the contraceptive effect.)”

On this note, the Board recommended full discussion of the condom, with use of the condom clearly in mind.  The motivation of the Board seemed summed up in the idea that one must be realistic and meet people where they are:

“even though the Church justifiably condemns premarital and extra-marital sex, such activity has in fact become part of the life style of many in our society, Christians and non-Christians alike.”

A medical doctor in Kitchener delivered a vigorous protest.  His medical experience taught him, he wrote the Bishop of Hamilton, April 2, 1987, that there is still a large reservoir of moral strength with teenagers who preserve their virginity (whom he estimated at over 50 per cent); that the condom is not a medical preventative for AIDS; and that the principle of double effect as set out in the Board’s letter was used improperly because it left out the viable option of fighting AIDS “by the mighty virtue of chastity.”  Shortly thereafter, the Hamilton Bishop issued a strong letter on chastity, rejecting the use of the condom or discussion thereof.  (“Concerns about AIDS, April 14, 1987).


In the United States, similar events transpired.  On February 11, 1987, the U.S. Catholic Conference declared itself to be unalterable opposed to the advertising of condoms or other contraceptives on television.”  (Origins, February 26, 1987).

Later in the year, the American bishops issued a powerful and well-reasoned argument against school-based sex clinics that dispense contraceptive information, suing both moral and practical arguments to get the their point across.  One argument was that once teen sexual activity is accepted as an irreversible cultural phenomenon, and society (or the Church) reacts accordingly, society in effect enhances and encourages what it should be discouraging.

Many faces of AIDS

On December 8, 1987, the Administrative Board of the United States Catholic (Bishops) Conference issued a 7700 word statement entitled “The Many Faces of AIDS: A Gospel Response.”

The Statement had not been presented to the full Conference (some 280 active members).  For the most part it is a solid application of Catholic values and proper compassion in the face of a deadly disease.  Yet, one key sentence seemed to contradict the earlier statements.  The paragraph deals with the subject of condoms and was seized upon immediately by the press as proof that the Conference was reversing itself.

“Because we live in a pluralistic society, we acknowledge that some will not agree with our understanding of human sexuality.  We recognize that public educational programs addressed to a wide audience will reflect the fact that some people will not act as they can and should; that they will not refrain from the type of sexual or drug abuse behavior, which can transmit AIDS.  In such situations, educational efforts, if grounded in the broader moral vision outlined above, should include accurate information about prophylactic devices or other practices proposed by some medical experts as potential means of preventing AIDS.  We are not promoting the use of prophylactics, but merely providing information that is part of the factual picture.

An editorial in Our Sunday Visitor (Dec. 27), asked how this paragraph – taken at face value – should be interpreted:

“Does this mean that the statement, in effect, approves the use of condoms (or education in their use) under certain circumstances as one means of preventing AIDS? Yes, in the sense of a “worst case scenario” with individuals who refuse to change their lifestyles and cannot or will not subscribe to the Catholic moral view of human sexuality.  Could a highly-nuanced statement such as this, be interpreted by secular media as a de facto endorsement by the United States Bishops of condom use as an AIDS prevention?  Yes, it could and certainly has.  Could the above paragraph then cause confusion on Church teaching concerning this issue?  Obviously!

Bishops react

The OSV pointed out that there was no question of this being a mere “media misinterpretation;” after all may bishops had reacted strongly against the statement.  The first one to criticize the USCC was Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark on December 11, followed by New York’s Cardinal “O’Connor, on December 13.  Other Bishops followed with their own criticisms such as 17 bishops in New England (December 12); the Bishops of Metropolitan Washington (December 14); Archbishop Mahoney of Los Angeles (December 15); Archbishops Stafford of Denver, Whealon of Hartford, Szoka of Detroit, and so on.  Archbishop Stafford stated:

“…I have serious doubts that the statements of the Administrative Board of the USCC is correct in either its analysis of the situation, or its utilization of the canonical principles and procedures by which such a statement might be issued.  I have serious questions concerning the canonical authority of the USCC or any of its representatives to issue what I judge to be seemingly juridically binding prescriptions…”

Three facts should be noted:

1)      All critics of the statement rejected the passage in question. For example, the five Washington Bishops said:

“First, some have interpreted the document as supporting educational programs which promote the use of condoms.  That position must be rejected.  The bishops cannot approve of any educational program, which encourages the use of contraceptive devices.  On the contrary, the church must strive to introduce to public policy and educational programs the true meaning and purposes of human sexuality.

Second, the document has been interpreted to mean that in effect pastors and health care professionals can counsel those who are infected with AIDS and who are determined to remain sexually active to use condoms.  That position too must be rejected.  It is never morally permissible to employ an intrinsically evil means to achieve a good purpose.  No Catholic pastor or counselor is ever free to advocate the use of contraceptive devices.

2)      Bishops who defended the statement said the passage in question really did not say what people thought it said, and that there was not question of American bishops reversing themselves and approving the use of condoms.

3. The Chairman of the four-bishop task force that drafted the Statement, Bishop William Hughes of Covington, Ky., made it clear that the passage concerned instruction and not use or distribution of condoms:

“…In addressing the community at large, we recognize that those not of our faith may not be persuaded by our moral traditions and that many Catholics will not always live according to our teachings.  With this in mind, we acknowledge that the Catholic Church exists in a pluralistic society and many people do not follow the teachings of the church.  AIFDS is a fatal disease, a fact that puts it into a category very different from other sexually transmitted communicable disease.

“Because of these two factors, the bishops believed that they could not object to education programs that presented all important facts that could help in decreasing the spread of this fatal disease.  It is important to recognize that there is a difference between presenting this information as part of the total factual picture and presenting them as permissible and an avenue to ‘safe sex.’  There is no such thing as ‘safe sex.’

(All quotes form Origins, Dec. 24.87)

Condom approval

There are theological problems with the “condom against AIDS” policy.  Here, in my opinion, are some of them.

Approval in principle cannot and if it is a duty for the common good – may not be restricted to one group of recipients, nor to just one group of distributors.  This approach supports a concept of human nature derogatory of “street kids” as human beings (zombies without free will).  It undermines the call to conversion, which is supposed to be the Church’s real task.  It is a psychological crutch that creates a false security.  It is based wrongly on a theory of a lesser of two evils.  It reinforces the current betrayal of the Church’s battle against the contraceptive mentality by Catholics promoting contraceptives, by Catholic hospitals permitting contraceptive sterilizations, by Catholics teaching that Humanae Vitae is only one opinion among many or that it should be modified; thus it creates further confusion about the mission of the church.  It reinforces the popular cult of physical health, which holds that there is nothing worse than physical death.

Rather than entering into a detailed theological discussion, let me present two important points: a medical, non-theological, statement on condoms and a statement from a Vatican authority.

Condoms not medically useful

The American National Federation of Catholic Physicians Guild has rejected the provision of factual information on condom use in AIDS education programs.  Basing its comments on recent articles in medical journals (references here omitted) the Federation, following the American Bishops controversy, stated the following:

“Most recent studies indicate that condom use is not significantly associated with protection from AIDS and failure to use condoms is not associated with increased risk of contracting the disease from an infected partner.

“Previous recommendations for condom use were based on highly questionable in-vitro data or on misleading data derived from condom use in contraception.  The most that can be expected from condom use is a delay in transmission of AIDS infection.  The risk of contracting a fatal disease even with condom use is unacceptable from a public health standpoint.” (INFCPG Newsletter, Winter 1987-88, p.1).  In Toronto, student doctors are taught that condoms are not real protection against AIDS.

This, then, is a medical and not a theological point.  It indicates that the agitation for condoms may well be completely unnecessary.

Vatican authority rejects condoms

Below follows the full text of recent statement from the Vatican.  It appeared as a front page article in the Vatican’s newspaper the Osservatore Romano, Italian edition, on Marsh 10, 1988, and has since been reprinted in the English edition, March 27 and in Origins, March 24.  It is unsigned, but according to the OR’s Italian editor, it is from an “authoritative” source at the Vatican.  The key phrases concerning the use of condoms come in the second last paragraph.

Document – concern

Since the Centers for Disease Control announced in 1981 the existence of a new and ominous infectious disease, the concern about AIDS has grown at an equal pace with the increase of knowledge about acquired immune deficiency syndrome.  Neither the identification in 1983 of the virus responsible for the infection – the HIV (human immune-deficiency virus) – nor the appearance of the first pharmacological preparation – AZT, HPA-23, and others, unfortunately of rather limited effectiveness – provide sufficient reasons to hope for a neutralization of the epidemic in the short term.

The initial forecasts of catastrophe have fortunately not been realized, above all because the virus is not very contagious and the ways it is transmitted are rather limited.  It is necessary, moreover, to emphasize the rapidity with which a sufficient amount of information on preventive measures has spread in an unprecedented sphere of international cooperation.

Despite this, the lack of an etiological therapy, the significant difficulties obstructing the effort to produce a vaccine and the lethal character of the disease still justify widespread apprehension about the present and future of AIDS.

The problems that have been raised, however, are not of an exclusively epidemiological or clinical nature.  The disease strikes chiefly homosexual persons or persons addicted to drugs.  It involves individuals, with their own particular world of truncated aspiration and realities, of loneliness and fragile relationships.  These people have a right to attention and to necessary help based on their fundamental dignity as human beings: and, for their part, they have the duty not to transmit the disease in the community.  Considering the problems connected with AIDS, all this requires that one pay particular attention to the ethical aspects.  One thinks, for example, of the temptation for possible remedies, often of considerable toxicity, or of the danger of adopting measures too precipitously, which result generally in the marginalization of the disease rather than its suppression.

There already exists an abundant literature: numerous conferences and seminars have been held: periodicals have been inundated by letters to the editor…In the complex diversity of opinions and proposals there is a central point on which all agree:  The only truly effective measure is prevention, avoiding the cause of the contagion, which means in 95 per cent of the cases abstaining from sexual activity outside of marriage and from the use of drugs.  Once again ethics and medicine are in agreement, without either losing its own specific mission, without trespassing across fields of competence.  Ethics does not recommend the practice of virtue in order to avoid disease – medicine can do that – but it recommends virtue because chastity, marital fidelity, dominion over oneself and self-control – not mere repression – of the different impulses are the only ways in conformity with the dignity of the person capable of leading the person to a more complete and balanced development and a greater happiness.

Recent facts seem to indicate, in fact, that a preventive strategy, one that limits itself exclusively to “neutralizing” the sources of the contagion, can turn out to be ineffective and even to be counter-productive.  Some communities of drug addicts, for example, prefer to continue to use a single syringe, rather than the single-use hygienic syringes provided for free by the National Health Service.


The prevention of AIDS has moral implications of more importance than was thought at the outset.  The responsibility of the struggle against the sickness does not fall uniquely on the shoulders of some doctors and researchers but, on the contrary, must be shared by all and by each of the members of the social community. The triumph over cancer will come from the laboratories, while the defeat of AIDS depends on the cooperation of everyone for the elimination of the sources of the contagion.

That much said, it obviously requires a tremendous effort to modify and overcome an ethically aberrant behaviour.  This does not mean affirming that a necessary relationship exists between illness and moral guilt, as if the first is the inevitable punishment stemming from the second, even though some disease stricken individuals are convinced of that in their own consciences.

That medicine should have reached conclusions in conformity with an ethical model of virtue is not a novelty; on the contrary, this has occurred many other times.  Spiritual health contributes to physical health and vice versa.  We are in fact, used to experiencing such reciprocal interactions.  Recently, for example, discoveries in the field of nutrition have again given value to the virtue of sobriety, and along these lines they are slowly modifying the mistaken eating habits of traditions many centuries old.  The tendency today to moderate the use of tobacco is in strict relation to the awareness of the etiopathogeneses of lung cancer.  Temperance, chastity, etc., are values embraced by some only for aesthetic, athletic, hygienic or still other reasons.

No one can be astonished or, even less, scandalized that in a pluralistic society the Christian proclaims the ideal of a life of chastity, or marital fidelity, or temperance, without ceasing for that reason to show a profound and human compassion toward those who have lost the proper use of the body and of its faculties.  That the weapons of virtue can also combat a fatal disease is an incentive to the virtuous, but it is up to the Christian above all to seek to correct without compromises the deviation and vices which undermine at its roots human life, the dignity of the person and the family, the truth about human sexuality denied by homosexuality, the very great value of human love and, as a consequence, the cohesiveness and future of society.

To seek the solution to the problem of contagion in the promotion of the use of prophylactics means, therefore, promoting a way that is not only untrustworthy from a technical point of view, but also and above all, unacceptable from a moral point of view. The proposal of a sexuality rendered in such a way – as is said – “safe” or at least “safer” misses the true cause of the problem: that permissiveness which in the sexual field as in that related to other abuses, corrodes the moral fiver of the people.

The Christian, if he lives in conformity with the example and the teachings of the Master, over and above the concrete circumstances that can make a sickness more or less repugnant, will tend to see the person who suffers as a brother, as another Christ: he will seek to provide him with comfort and at the same time, to show him that his sickness, his pain, can be transformed into a divine treasure of inestimable value: that of the passion and death of Christ.