The Church and AIDS

John B. Shea
Insight Issue: February, 2007
Reproduced with Permission

Michael Swan, in his article "Church caught up in condom conundrum" in the Catholic Register, August, 2006, stated that, "There is no official Church position on the use of condoms to prevent transmission of a virus, or on the use of condoms outside marriage." This statement is incorrect. Two recent Church statements are relevant.

The statement of Pope John Paul II to a group of priests was, "Contraception is to be judged objectively so profoundly unlawful as never to be, for any reason, justified" (Sept. 17, 1983). The Vatican's Pontifical Council for The Family, Vade Mecum for Confessors, Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life states, "The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable" (March 1, 1997, emphasis in original text).

Father James F. Keenan, S.J. and Father Jon D. Fuller, S.J. are quoted as arguing that the moral principle of double effect allows the use of the condom within marriage to prevent a fatal infection. Sister Mary Owens, who has worked with AIDS patients in Nairobi, is quoted as justifying the use of the condom by a married couple when one of them has HIV. She says this is an example of the appropriate use of the principle of double effect. Both the priests and Sister Mary are wrong. Any act which has a double effect may only be used if it is either a good act in itself, or is, at least, morally neutral. Contraception is, as the Church teaches, an intrinsic evil.

Sister Owens also says that you cannot tell a married couple, one of whom is HIV positive, that they cannot have sex for the rest of their life. Let us examine the probable outcome if they do have sex using a condom.

The efficacy of birth control, judged by the probability of pregnancy over time for women whose sexual partners always use condoms, is as follows:

Time Span Probability of Pregnancy
1 year 15%
2 years 28%
3 years 39%
4 years 48%
5 years 56 %
10 years 80 %

These are probably the lowest rates of probability, since they assume 100% condom use.1,2

The effectiveness of birth control refers to protection under actual conditions of use including condom breakage and slippage and human error. Condoms break 6.64% of the time and slip 3.44% of the time, for a total failure rate of 8.08%. The effectiveness of the condom in preventing HIV infection is much lower than its effectiveness in preventing pregnancy. This is because conception can occur only during the 5-7 fertile days of the menstrual cycle, while HIV infection can occur at any time of the menstrual cycle.

For the above reasons, what Dr. Michael Gottlieb said is true. Gottlieb, who is the scientist who made the original report to the Centers for Disease Control on "gay-related immune deficiency" (GRID), which was later relabeled "AIDS, said, "There is no such thing as safe sex for someone contemplating sex with a HIV positive person."(2),3 Therefore, to recommend that a married couple, one of whom is HIV positive, should continue to have sexual intercourse and use a condom for protection would be very bad medical advice. It is quite clear that both the moral and medical advice in Mr. Swan's article is incorrect and dangerous. The Catholic Register should publish a retraction of this counsel.


1 Contraceptive Technology (Eighteenth Revised Edition), New York: Ardent Media Inc., 2004. [Back]

2 The Case Against Condoms, Alfonso Cardinal Lopez Trujillo, and Brian Close Ph.D., Human Life International, 2006, p. 38. [Back]

3 Quoted in John Kelly, MD. "Condom Failure and Transmission of HIV Infection." CMAC Bulletin, Oct. 1992, p. 19. [Back]