Father Martin Rhonheimer is the most important moral theologian to come out in favor of condoms used to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. In The Tablet, he stated the following:
a married man who is HIV infected and uses condoms to protect his wife from infection is not acting to render procreation impossible, but to prevent infection. If conception is prevented, this will be an—unintentional—side effect and will not therefore shape the moral meaning of the act as a contraceptive act.1
The foregoing statement begins by framing the issue of condoms and HIV/AIDS in relation to the question of what constitutes a contraceptive act. Thus, the implication is that if the use of a condom is not contraceptive, then it is also not morally wrong. An analogous situation, according to this view, is that in which a woman takes the anovulant pill, not for contraception, but for therapeutic purposes.2
Most moral theologians would grant that the use of condoms to prevent the passing of HIV/AIDS to a spouse does not constitute an act of contraception, because it lacks the relevant intentionality. As a number of prominent moral theologians have argued, however, framing the question as though it were about contraception does not yet really come to grips with the underlying moral issue.3 Rather, the question needs to be addressed in relation to the nature of the conjugal act and chastity. Sexual acts are of course morally good only when they constitute conjugal acts, but not all sexual acts spouses may perform are ipso facto conjugal ones. The discussion of whether the contraceptive effect of the use of condoms to prevent the passing of HIV/ AIDS to a spouse is praeter intentionem (outside of intention) is therefore a distraction from the underlying moral issue. If the use of a condom prevents the sexual act from being truly conjugal, then the very choice to use a condom is in itself morally evil (i.e., the evil is not simply a side effect). Rhonheimer argues in response that the use of a condom for this purpose is only a “modification” of a normal sexual act and that this modification therefore does not invalidate the act as properly conjugal. The Church’s teaching that “each and every” sexual act between spouses must be “open” to procreation should therefore be understood to mean “intentional” openness, rather than “physical openness.”4 Otherwise, he continues, natural infertility, the use of NFP, and therapeutic uses of the pill would also invalidate the sexual intimacies of spouses as conjugal acts, since they too would lack “physical openness.”5 The attempt to argue that the use of a condom obstructs the integrity of the conjugal act, then, is to resort to a discredited moral theology of natural teleologies that violates the division between fact and value, between is and ought.6
This debate raises the issue of the role of intention and nature in determining when a sexual act is a “conjugal” one. While a full discussion of these matters would require a much fuller treatment than is possible in a short note, the following will nevertheless briefly offer the outlines of a response.
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1. Martin Rhonheimer, “The Truth About Condoms,” The Tablet (10 July 2004), 11.
2. Benedict Guevin and Martin Rhonheimer, “On the Use of Condoms to Prevent Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome,” National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly (Spring, 2005): 38, 42.
3. E.g., Luke Gormally, “Marriage and the Prophylactic Use of Condoms,” The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly (Winter, 2005); William E. May, “Using Condoms to Prevent HIV,” The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly (Winter, 2004).
4. Guevin and Rhonheimer, “On the Use of Condoms,” 44, 46.
6. Ibid, 44.