Vol III: Dissent of the Faithful: Roman Catholic Disobedience to Vatican Policy on Contraception

In 2010, despite a longstanding ban on contraceptives of all kinds within the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI made a statement that seemed to suggest that the Vatican had changed its stance on the use of condoms as a means of combating HIV/ AIDS. In the weeks that followed, an immense amount of speculation swirled around the Pope’s statements, leading many to wonder if the Church was experiencing a reformation of sorts. One online publication went to far as to say that “Pope Benedict XVI has now reversed the Catholic Church’s long-standing position with regard to the use of condoms to combat the spread of the HIV virus”(Deutsche Welle, 2006).

The importance of this subject is self-evident; a significant number of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics live in places that are subject to the worst instances of the AIDS pandemic, such as Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo (BBC News, “How Many Roman Catholics”, 2013). Furthermore, many of these 1.2 billion Catholics live their lives according to the teachings of the pope and their local bishops and priests. In light of such controversial uncertainty, it is therefore necessary to explore the possibility of dissent from the traditional Roman Catholic condom policy. Have elements of the Church deviated from the longstanding policies of the Vatican on the issue of condom use? If so, what is the logic and reasoning behind this dissent? How does the Catholic laity actually live: according to doctrine or as they see fit?

It is of course erroneous to speak in a holistic way about the policies of the Roman Catholic Church, which is a complicated, bureaucratized, and hierarchical institution. The division of power, rights, and responsibilities between the various layers of the hierarchy means that a discussion regarding the Church must take these different strata into account individually. For the sake of exploration, this paper will examine elements of change and dissent among three layers of the Church: the papacy and the Vatican, a number of dissenting bishops and finally Catholic civil society and the laity more generally.

This paper will show that each of these layers has engaged in different degrees of dissent on the issue of condoms as a means of combating HIV/AIDS. First and foremost, despite claims that in 2010 that Benedict XVI “reversed the Catholic Church’s long-standing position with regard to the use of condoms” (Deutsche Welle, 2006), the papacy and the Vatican have maintained the same policy on condoms since at least 1965. Far from dissenting, some traditionalist elements of the Church have even gone so far as to propagate pseudo-scientific myths to control the use of condoms among Catholic populations. Secondly, the continuing traditionalism of the papacy and the Vatican are in clear contrast to the number of notable bishops who have dissented as of the late 1980s by postulating that in many cases condoms represent an acceptable means of combating HIV/AIDS. Though most dissenting bishops exercised considerable restraint on the issue of condoms, Catholic civil society and the laity have disagreed openly and freely, often taking the opportunity to confront the Vatican on its statements and policies directly. In fact, lay Catholic populations all over the world have consistently dissented from traditional condom policy in both thought and practice.

Vatican II & Consistent Conservatism

In some respects, the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 signaled the close of a then-ongoing debate on the use of newly emerging forms of contraception. In December of the same year, Pope Paul VI released his encyclical titled The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: Gaudium et Spes (Pope Paul VI, 1965). As suggested by the title, the encyclical letter dealt with a number of issues faced by the Church as it was thrust into modernity. Perhaps most significantly, its author was quite clear in his statement that “sons of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law” (Pope Paul VI, 1965). The work makes no other direct reference to the issue of birth control, but rather set the tone for Paul’s 1968 encyclical, Human Vitae. Unlike Gaudium et Spes, Human Vitae concerned itself directly with “the Regulation of Birth Control”, stating clearly that “an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life…contradicts the will of the Author of life” (Pope Paul VI, 1968). Paul went on to forbid any action or behaviour “specifically intended to prevent procreation— whether as an end or as a means” (Pope Paul VI, 1968). With these two encyclicals, the papacy set its standard on the issue of birth control: no artificial means were to be accepted.

Between the proclamation of Human Vitae in 1968 and Benedict’s remarks in 2010, the position of the reigning popes has been characterized by consistent conservatism; there has been no divergence from the opinions of Paul VI on the use of condoms among either popes or the Vatican more generally. In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the generally conservative John Paul II noted that it is “morally unacceptable to encourage, let alone impose, the use of methods such as contraception, sterilization and abortion in order to regulate births” (Pope John Paul II, 1995). In December of that same year, the Pontifical Council for the Family, led by President Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, issued a statement claiming that “parents must also reject the promotion of so-called ‘safe sex’ a dangerous and immoral policy based on the deluded theory that the condom can provide adequate protection against AIDS” (The Pontifical Council for the Family, 1995).

The Vatican has made no secret of its controversial policies, even in light of a global health crisis. During the adoption of a joint United Nations declaration on HIV/AIDS in 2001, a Vatican representative noted that “The Holy See wishes to emphasize that, with regard to the use of condoms as a means of preventing HIV infection, it has in no way changed its moral position” (The Holy See, 2001). Similarly, in June of 2011, the United Nations held a convention on the international AIDS epidemic, where a Vatican representative declared that “the Holy See does not endorse the use of condoms…as part of HIV and AIDS prevention programmes” (Chullikatt, 2011).

In 2009, John Paul II’s successor Pope Benedict XVI gave an extended interview to a journalist on a number of topics. As Benedict was travelling to Angola and Cameroon, the interviewer questioned him on the Vatican’s position on condoms, asking “the position of the Catholic Church on the way to fight [AIDS] is often considered unrealistic and ineffective. Will you address this theme during the journey?” (The Vatican, 2009). Benedict replied that “if Africans do not help [by responsible behaviour], the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it” (The Vatican, 2009). Thus by 2009, the papacy maintained an absolutely uncompromising position on the use of condoms, even for the prevention of infection. The following year, something happened that seemed to destabilize forty years of consistent conservatism.

A Brief Controversy with an Expected Outcome

In 2010, journalist Peter Seewald conducted a series of interviews with Pope Benedict XVI that he later published in a book titled Light of the World. When questioned on the issue of condoms by Seewald, Benedict claimed that “there may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality” (Seewald, 2010). A puzzled Seewald inquired “Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?”(Seewald, 2010). The cautious Benedict replied “She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality” (Seewald, 2010). The international media exploded with controversy; one article went so far as to claim that Benedict had “reversed” the Church’s policy on condoms, (Deutsche Welle, 2006) as if to say that its entire body of thought had been unceremoniously discarded with one statement. Nothing was further from the truth.

In response to what it considered a stream of inaccurate interpretations, the Vatican published a Note on the Banalization of Sexuality Regarding Certain Interpretations of “Light of the World.” Therein, The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith claimed that “the Holy Father was talking neither about conjugal morality nor about the moral norm concerning contraception. This norm belongs to the tradition of the Church and was summarized succinctly by Pope Paul VI in paragraph 14 of his Encyclical Letter Humanae vitae (sic)” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 2010). The note went on to encourage the continuation of “abstinence before and fidelity within marriage” as a means of combating the spread of AIDS (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 2010). With this, Vatican traditionalists quickly aligned Benedict’s statements with the conservative thought of Paul VI. Even without such interventions, it is exceedingly obvious that Benedict’s statements did not amount to a “reversal” of the Vatican’s condom policy. His statement refers only to a highly specific circumstance and does not suggest that condoms are either a “moral” or “real” solution, only that they amount to a “first step in the direction of moralization.”

It seems further that the ambiguity of Benedict’s statement was intentional, perhaps because the Church condemns all sexual activity which is not vaginal intercourse between husband and wife. It seems that Benedict spoke in a benign way because he did not want his perceived endorsement of homosexual activity to appear as an endorsement of homosexuality more generally. On the other hand, since male homosexual sex does not contain the potential to create life, there was no reason to insist on the use of condoms during homosexual interaction per se. The pope thus skirted a fine line by suggesting that while homosexual sex is not moral, its moral character can at least be improved by the use of condoms so as to prevent the spread of disease.

Exaggerated Conservatism

Since the outbreak of HIV, the Vatican has not only refused to compromise on the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, but in some cases has actually propagated pseudo-scientific myths in an attempt to curb the influence of governments, institutions, and NGOs which promote the use of condoms to prevent infection. Thus, far from dissenting, many traditionalist elements of the Roman Catholic Church under direct influence of the Vatican and Pope have actually resorted to trickery to stem the tide of condom use especially in the “developing world.”

In 1997, a coalition of NGOs, intellectuals, and politicians in Mexico launched an advertising campaign to encourage the use of condoms (Hernandez & Luna, 1997). In response, the Catholic Church launched its own campaign featuring ads on billboards, public transport, TV and radio which claimed that condoms have a 40% failure rate. (Hernandez & Luna, 1997) In 2003, the President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo said on a BBC television programme that “The AIDS virus is roughly 450 times smaller than the spermatozoon. The spermatozoon can easily pass through the ‘net’ that is formed by the condom” (Bradshaw, 2003).

It seems that these claims have had a tangible impact on the beliefs of the global Catholic populations and may have even exaggerated superstition is some cases. Recently, an AIDS programme director in Kenya reported that “some priests have even been saying that condoms are laced with HIV/Aids” (Bradshaw, 2003). In 2003, BBC journalists found that Catholic populations in both Latin America and Asia believed the myth of permeable condoms (Bradshaw, 2003). A series of studies conducted on Congolese youth between 2004 and 2005 yielded similar results. When questioned on the effectiveness of condoms, some replied that “AIDS can pass through the condom and enter” and “it can have little holes” (Bosmans, Cikuru, Claeys, & Temmerman, 2006). Because the Church administered all AIDS treatment and care facilities in the area, they insisted solely on abstinence and fidelity while rejecting the use of condoms. In some cases, the C of the A(bstinence) B(e faithful) C(Condoms) campaign was simply removed from t shirts, posters, and calendars (Bosmans, et al., 2006). Perhaps most importantly, the facilities were clear in stating that their policies always conformed to those of the Church (Bosmans et al., 2006). In short, several conservative elements of the Church, including bishops and Councils allegiant to Rome, have not only opposed dissent but have actually attempted to reverse the ground gained by actors who have promoted condom use as a means of fighting HIV/AIDS.

The Dissenting Bishops

Beginning in the late 1980s and amidst a strong wave of AIDS activism in the West, a steady stream of notable bishops began to make statements and proclamations that deviated considerably from the policies of the Popes and the Vatican. These bishops generally displayed a more lenient attitude on the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, but were otherwise quite conservative on other issues. So far as this research has been able to gather, no bishop or clergy member of notable significance has simply issued a carte blanche with regard to condoms. Rather, certain bishops have issued limited proclamations stating that condoms may be used between married couples and those individuals who, despite their infected status, are almost certain to have sexual relations anyways. Whatever their target audience, every bishop who issued such a proclamation did so under the justification of protecting life at the sacrifice of sacred sexuality, seeing condoms as a theological “lesser evil.”

Protecting Marriage & Protecting Life

In 1989, the Bishop of Evreux claimed that the Vatican’s failure to recommend the use of condoms in the fight against AIDS amounted to a violation of the commandment that “thou shalt not kill” (Catholics for Choice [CFC], 2013). This statement seems to have set off a general domino effect among bishops throughout the Church, some of whom began to speak publicly in support of condom use as a means of preventing transmission. In 1993, Archbishop André Collini of Toulouse claimed that an infected person engaging in sexual activity “does not have the right not to use a condom” or else becomes “an agent of death” (CFC, 2013). The Social Commission of the French Hierarchy, the Church’s highest social authority in France issued a report on AIDS in 1996 which stated that “many competent doctors affirm that a condom of trustworthy quality is presently the only means of prevention. For this reason the use of a condom may be necessary” (CFC, 2013). Stating their justification, the President of the Catholic Committee of French Doctors maintained, “The Church cannot be against contraceptives, a means of preventing the transmission of death” (Dorozynski, 1996). Kevin Dowling, the controversial and outspoken Bishop of Rustenberg (South Africa) began his trend of dissent in 2001 when he claimed that infected people who did not follow Church teachings on chastity “should use a condom in order to prevent the transmission of potential death to another” (CFC, 2013).

While most dissenting bishops have remained unspecific on who may acceptably use condoms, some have focused their desire to preserve life on the institution of marriage. In 2003, the Archbishop of Glasgow, Mario Conti, deemed condoms acceptable for married couples with one infected partner (CFC, 2013). In 2006, a Cameroonian Bishop, Christian Tumi, remarked that “if a partner in a marriage is infected with HIV, the use of condoms makes sense.” In 2006, former Milanese Archbishop Carlo Martini similarly claimed that condoms were acceptable in “the particular situation of spouses, one of whom is infected with AIDS. The infected one is obligated to protect the other partner” (Sandro, 2006). Though these restrictions to married couples are conservative in nature, they nonetheless represent dissenting views by sanctioning condom use when the conception of life would otherwise be possible, thus differentiating them from the 2010 statements of Benedict.

Do the Bishops’ Statements Constitute Dissent?

It may be initially tempting to suggest that there is not much difference between the statements of Benedict in 2010 and those of the various bishops since 1989. Both the former pope and the dissenting bishops all issued relatively vague statements rather than cartes blanches on condom use. However, a close comparison of the bishops’ statements to those of Benedict reveals a considerable degree of dissent. Whereas Benedict claimed immediately that condoms were “not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection”, Archbishop Collini suggested that infected people who fail to use condoms were “agents of death.” Thus, while Benedict has loosely suggested that condom use may amount to some degree of responsible behavior, Collini mandated that failure to use such was tantamount to murder. Such a stark difference in language points to two fundamentally different positions: one of tradition and one of dissent.

Further, the Note on the Banalization of Sexuality Regarding Certain Interpretations of Light of the World which was issued after Benedict’s famous statements of 2010 clearly stated that “an action which is objectively evil, even if a lesser evil, can never be licitly willed. The Holy Father did not say – as some people have claimed – that prostitution with the use of a condom can be chosen as a lesser evil” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 2010). By contrast, the dissenting bishops were almost unanimous in the opinion that condoms constitute a “lesser evil.” Cardinal Carlo Martini was direct in his suggestion that “…the use of condoms can constitute a lesser evil” (Sandro, 2006). Throughout the early 2000s, the bishops of Vienna, Paris, Goias and other districts echoed the sentiment on “lesser evil” in their own words (CFC, 2013). As one author has suggested, the dissenting bishops “have turned to the Catholic tradition and have applied to this particular question the principle of the lesser evil…the principle is concerned solely with preventing another evil being added to the moral wrongfulness of the action.” (Fuller & Keenan, 2001). In invoking the idea of “lesser evil”, these bishops have dissented by effectively accepting the exercise of one sin to ameliorate another.

These bishops’ positions further constitute dissent insofar that they accepted condoms in a much broader array of situations and circumstances. While Benedict suggested only the instance of a male prostitute, the dissenting bishops have suggested the acceptability of condoms with regard to married couples, unmarried couples, prostitutes, and generally anyone who is infected and will have sexual relations nonetheless (CFC, 2013). The outspoken South African Bishop Kevin Dowling went so far as to say that Africans “must use condoms” in the fight against AIDS, without actually stipulating any further requirement for approval (CFC, 2013).

The Masses in Revolt

In contrast with opinions and statements of dissenting bishops, certain elements of Catholic civil society have waged an all-out revolt against the traditionalist stance of the Vatican. Organizations such as the US-based “Catholics for Choice” have directly confronted the Vatican’s statements with its own agenda of condom use among the faithful. In 2001, Catholics for Choice launched an advertising campaign in the USA, Mexico, the Philippines, South Africa, Kenya, Chile, and Zimbabwe to counter the effects of Cardinal Trujillo’s 2003 statements on the permeability of condoms (CFC, “Condoms4Life”). Certain ads pointed out that as many as 4,000 bishops lobby national governments and the UN to restrict the distribution of condoms (CFC, “Condoms4Life”). In 2013, the organization caused a stir in Kenya over a billboard advertisement that featured the message “We believe in God. We believe that sex is sacred. We believe in caring for each other. We believe in using condoms. Good Catholics Use Condoms” alongside an embracing heterosexual couple. (BBC News, “Kenya Condom Advert”, 2013). The ad, alongside the rest of the campaign, drew significant criticism from the chairman of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal John Njue, who attempted to have it removed (BBC News, “Kenya Condom Advert”, 2013).

In their own way, the Catholic laity of the world has staged its own silent revolt, albeit more tacitly than the dissenting bishops. Recent studies show that Catholics all over the world have commonly dissented from traditional Vatican condom policy in both thought and practice. Among Catholic populations in each country, 63% of Americans, 60% of Mexicans, 37% of Ghanaians, 79% of Irish, and 47% of Filipinos felt that the Church’s position on condoms should be changed for any reason including the AIDS crisis. (CFC, “Catholics Support the Use of Condoms”). Among Catholic populations in each country, 79% of Americans, 90% of Mexicans, 59% of Ghanaians, 86% of Irish, and 77% of Filipinos agreed that “using condoms is prolife because it helps save lives by preventing the spread of AIDS” (CFC, “Catholics Support the Use of Condoms”). In 2000, a study of young Catholics in six Western countries revealed that nearly all agreed that church teaching on contraception was “out of date” (Maher, Sever, & Pichler, 2008). Perhaps most remarkably, studies conducted by 4 researchers in 1987, 1993, and 1999 found that over time there was a decrease in attachment to the institution of the Church and greater reliance on the individual conscience for sex related issues (Maher et al., 2008).

While the dissenting bishops have taken a conciliatory tone in an attempt to bridge the demands of modernity with traditional Church doctrine, Catholics for Choice has stood up to the Vatican in opposition while maintaining a connection to the faith. Dissent here has been total, showing little regard for the maintenance of traditional relations and views. While the laity has embodied the spirit of the “silent majority”, its dissent is equally as significant. For various reasons, a significant number of Catholics surveyed directly disagreed with Vatican policy, sometimes going so far as to contradict it outright. Such findings seem to represent an overall historical trend, whereby the tendency for dissent has grown among a laity that sees the Vatican as unable to adequately handle the challenges of modernity.


The tendency towards dissent from the traditional policies of Paul VI corresponds directly with the degree of authority possessed by the actor in question. Those members of the Church with the most accountability for the spiritual guidance of others have showed consistent conservatism and a reluctance to wager on new policies. Thus the pope, who Catholics hold to be Christ’s pontiff on Earth, is necessarily conservative because his teachings influence all of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. Bishops and archbishops, who are responsible for their own districts, have less accountability overall and are generally more attuned to the needs of their local populations. It is unsurprising that Bishop Kevin Dowling of South Africa has endorsed the use of contraceptives because he represents a limited spiritual constituency that has been devastated by AIDS and can be assisted by condom use. As such, the Bishop has encouraged the use of prophylactics and in doing so has gambled the spiritual well-being of his people by ensuring their immediate physical well-being. Finally, the laity has pursued such a dissident path from traditional policy because these individual Catholics are not responsible for anyone “under them.” They do not face the threat of inadvertently causing a schism or disrupting the ordered character of the Church. In short, the various degrees of dissent among elements of the Church are best described as reflecting the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church itself.

Galen Ostermann is a fourth and final year student enrolled in honours history at McGill University with a minor in international relations. While his past research has focused on such topics as the German resistance movements of the Second World War and the role of sexual violence in the dissolution of Yugoslavia, his honours thesis centres of the development of the Japanese welfare state in the early 20th century. Galen intends to pursue a career in international security and humanitarian law.


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This article was originally published in 2014 Spring issue, and can be seen here.
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