AIDS kills. There is no vaccine. Condoms help prevent the spread of AIDS.

Sorry to state the obvious, but it seems that these basic facts still need to be proclaimed. The 16th International AIDS conference is meeting in Toronto this week, and it has emerged that the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is donating $500 million (greedy capitalist bastards!) to a global fund to help fight the spread of the disease which kills 35 million people each year. In an effort to beat bureaucracy, corruption and waste the foundation has pledged money only to groups able to prove that every single last cent is spent on preventative measures or effective drug research. This will go a long way to help, but the single biggest obstacle to the fight against AIDS is not bureaucracy, corruption or waste: it’s the Roman Catholic church.

Despite running 25% of the world’s AIDS treatment centres the Roman Catholic church retains its ban on the most effective weapon: a little piece of rubber. The use of this little piece of rubber has been ruled out by a little piece of moral theology: a little deadly piece of moral theology which has undoubtedly contributed to thousands, maybe millions, of deaths. The RC church’s approach to condoms is as far from being life-affirming as east is from west, and is neither theologically sound, nor moral.

Much to the disgust of the World Health Organisation, figures within the RCC have gone so far as to claim that condoms actually contribute to the spread of AIDS. Rafael Llano Cifuentes, Auxilliary Bishop in Rio de Janeiro, put it like this: “using a condom to stop AIDS is like putting out a fire using petrol.” So, in the mumbo-jumbo world that is Catholic morality, condoms help to spread AIDS. I suppose umbrellas make you more wet, Father? I guess this kind of statement shouldn’t surprise us coming from the church that gave us the rhythm method of birth control – to which comedian Billy Connelly claims to owe his very existence. In fact, Billy Connolly is worth quoting a little more at length: “Only a celibate could come up with the line: ‘at the point of ejaculation withdraw.’ Oh yeah!?! Is that right father!?! Well let me tell you something. At the point of ejaculation there isn’t a bloody herd of wild horses that could make my arse go in that direction.” Anyhow. Moving swiftly on.

The RCC continues to stick to preaching about abstinence and faithfulness. Nothing inherently wrong with that. Abstinence from sex altogether would indeed hinder the spread of AIDS quite successfully. However, the RCC needs to wake up to the reality of life, especially in a continent like Africa which has been ravaged by AIDS, and realise that abstinence programmes only work to a certain extent. Millions of people are still going to have sex, and many people in Africa catch AIDS from their spouse. Abstinence is not really an option for millions of women in Africa. Nor will faithfulness help someone if their partner is unfaithful or has HIV. The case of Harriet Nakabugo is particularly tragic. Despite the fact that her husband has HIV, her Catholic teachers have lead her to believe that condoms are unholy, that she cannot get to heaven if she uses them, and that she would miss God’s blessings and end up in Hell if she goes against church teaching. She now fears she has HIV herself, and thus is going to die for a point of theology that relies on dubious science and questionable ethics, as we shall see.

Leading Catholic Cardinals have defended their position by arguing that the AIDS virus can pass through the tiny holes in condoms. Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujill, President Pontifical Council for the Family, pontificates that, “this is something the scientific community accepts.” This is quite a serious claim. If it is false then the Catholic Church is in big trouble for misleading people.

Before we analyse this claim further we should perhaps note that the RCC’s opposition to condoms does not fundamentally rest on the claim that condoms are counter-productive in the fight against AIDS. Even if they thought condoms were wholly safe they would still oppose their use. Although condoms are not actually mentioned in the Bible, the Catholic Church holds to a natural law ethic, which had its classic statement in the work of the theologian Thomas Aquinas. According to their version of natural law ethics, the use of condoms offends the natural law that everyone, Christian or not, should obey. Under this scheme of things sex has a natural function – procreation. Condoms, (and every form of birth control) interfere with this and are thus “unnatural.” Bishop Cifuentes puts it thus: “The church is against condom use. Sexual relations between a man and a woman have to be natural. I’ve never seen a little dog using a condom during sexual intercourse with another little dog. Animals have natural sex. Man likes pleasure but not the consequences.”

I laughed the first time I read that quote. Then I realised he wasn’t taking the piss. Firstly, it may indeed be true that dogs do not use condoms, but does that mean that humans also must not use them? Since when was the behaviour of dogs taken to be the arbiter of what is right and wrong for a human being? Incidentally I’ve also never seen a little dog (or a big one) take a vow of chastity, or commit itself to one other dog for the rest of its life. In fact, if little dogs are a prime moral example then I guess I’ll nip out into the street, piss against a few lamp-posts, hump someone’s leg, and try to shag the first female that comes along. And perhaps tomorrow morning I’ll chase the mailman. Secondly, it would also be quite difficult to advocate monogamy on the basis of ‘natural sex.’ If humans should have “natural sex” just the way animals do then I suspect that the aforementioned senile old bishop might not be terribly happy with the consequences. Thirdly, just what is ‘unnatural’ about using a condom? Is it anymore unnatural than wearing warm clothes on a cold day to avoid hypothermia? I’ve never seen a dog put on warm clothes on a cold day. And, whilst we’re on the subject of “natural law” perhaps our dear old bishop may want to rethink his celibacy – doesn’t that offend the natural law? Perhaps he should ask himself just what the point of his bollocks is. Decorative purposes?

Anyhow, I suspect the RCC realises that most people are far too intelligent to buy into such hole-y moral theology. So, they try to appeal to science. Well, they don’t really appeal to science. They kind of make it up as they go along. Their position on the use of condoms is untrue and not by miles something that “the scientific community accepts.” Dave Lytle is a leading researcher on condoms and the question of leakage. His research concluded that 0.21% of condoms might conceivably leak any infectious virus, and that there was no real risk to worry about: “The latex condom is a very effective barrier…a few may allow minimal exposure to virus…[but] if I were to give my children or grandchildren advise about whether to use condoms, I’d say ‘absolutely.’”

This, then, leads us to a further question: what are the chances of being infected even by a leaking condom? Just because a person is exposed to the virus doesn’t mean they will get infected. It is a question of risk, and there are a number of factors that affect the risk: the viral dose, or amount of the virus a person is exposed to, and the infectivity of the virus, or how ‘active’ the viruses are in any given instance. Dr Pietro Vernazza, world expert and Head of Infectious Diseases at St Gallen’s Hospital in Switzerland, says: “We’re talking about such miniscule risk that in our regular life is a zero risk. . .it’s [a combination] of several unlikely events: the unlikely event that a condom will have a tiny hole. . .the very unlikely event that a virus will pass. . .and even after that it’s very unlikely that a virus that has passed actually causes transmission. . . [You‘re as likely to die in a plane crash].” He goes on to say that of course there is always a risk of a plane crashing, but the risk of it is so small that it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, stop us from getting on one to go on holiday.

Thankfully some Catholic leaders are coming to the conclusion that their current position is a crock of irresponsible shit with more holes in it than condoms allegedly have. A number of cardinals are currently lobbying the Pope to change the policy. They’re never going to give up the moral theology, so they still think the use of condoms is wrong, but they’ve found a loop-hole. They have appealed on the grounds that forbidding condom use is a “lesser evil” than the transmission of a deadly disease. Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, says that if 1 member in a sexual partnership has HIV then they are morally obliged to wear a condom, otherwise they would be guilty of breaking the 5th commandment: do not kill (just how someone is morally obliged to do an evil is a mystery to me, but I’ll let it go on this occasion). He correctly stresses that condoms are not just birth controls but help prevent a plethora of sexually transmitted diseases. Although the same dodgy natural law ethic is in place, at least there’s a better conclusion deducted from it.

The Catholic Church now needs to urgently address this question: Is a supposedly loving and good God really honoured by a theology that tells people like Harriet Nakabugo that they will go to Hell if they protect themselves by using a condom from a spouse infected with AIDS? Is a supposedly loving and good God really honoured by a theology that effectively assists the spread of a killer disease?

I think not.

Stephen Graham