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Pope Benedict, tear down this wall

Malcolm Potts, professor of population and family planning | December 14, 2010

All the world knew when the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, that a half century of Soviet tyranny was over.  Last month Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged that the use of a condom might save a man from dying of AIDS.  The Pope had the wisdom not to write an encyclical but to make a few remarks to Peter Seewald, a German journalist he trusted.  Already the Vatican is backtracking on the meaning of this statement, but there can be no doubt that this change in policy signals the fall of a theological wall around human sexuality, which has imprisoned Catholics for one and half millennia. Now the Pope’s Berlin Wall has been breached , and there is no return.

In the early 1980s, as president of a large US humanitarian agency, I initiated the first large scale AIDS prevention efforts in Africa, including the distribution of condoms. The Catholic leadership at all levels consistently opposed this work and even burned condoms in public. Until the Pope spoke, the Catholic hierarchy was trying to adverts such as “Banning condoms kills” by Washington-based Catholics for Choice. An estimated 25 million people have now died of AIDS.  An additional 33 million now carry the AIDS virus, and many of these will die before they can be treated.   Had the Vatican thrown its weight behind condom use, then I guess – and I admit it is only a guess – that perhaps 100,000 people might still be alive. That is as many as were killed in Hiroshima when the first atomic bomb was dropped.

But Pope Benedict’s words go far beyond AIDS. Once a Pope allows condoms to prevent AIDS, then why not the Pill to prevent unintended pregnancy? Last month I was in the Philippines where 11 woman a day die from pregnancy, childbirth or unsafe abortion. As an obstetrician I believe that half those deaths would be avoided if the bishops were not systemically denying poor women access to modern contraception.

As a young theologian, Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, was close to the debate surrounding contraception.  John Rock, a prominent Catholic gynecologist in Massachusetts, was central to the development of the first oral contraceptives.  In 1963 he wrote The Time has Come , arguing that the Pill was natural because the artificial hormones that were used in the Pill, like pregnancy and breastfeeding, naturally suppressed ovulation. One year later, Pope Paul VI established a Commission to advise on the theological acceptability of the Pill.  The bishops, who among other things heard the lay members describe the misery of using the rhythm method, voted 9 to 3 that “contraception within the framework of “responsible parenthood’” could be permitted.  After a year’s thought Pope Paul overrode his own Commission, writing the encyclical Humanae vitae, which excluded “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation.”  As Father John Ford, a conservative member of the Commission put it, if the Church had sent so many souls to Hell for the sin of artificial contraception, then it must keep maintaining that is where they are.

After Humanae vitae John Rock, along with millions of other Catholics stopped going to mass. Bishops throughout Europe told Catholics to follow their conscience. Throughout Europe and North and South America, Catholics now use contraception at the same rate as Protestants and atheists.  Even the Maltese, perhaps the most conservative Catholic country in Europe, now average 1.4 children.  Obviously they are using contraception.

The man who first erected a Berlin Wall around human sexuality was the 4th century writer St Augustine.  He taught that original sin had been transmitted in the semen since Adam, like some latter day AIDS virus. Augustine, having had two mistresses and one child, admitted he had never met a man who had intercourse “solely in the hope of conception,” yet he stubbornly taught that the pleasure of sex was intrinsically and inescapably sinful unless it was open to possibility of conception.  (At least Augustine was consistent, and unlike later lesser theologians he condemned what is now called natural family planning, along with all other forms of contraception.)

When Humanae vitae was published, I was a young doctor prescribing the Pill in England. I remember the British Medical Research Council setting up a study of 23,000 women using oral contraceptives and 23,000 non-users. Earlier this year a remarkable 39-year follow-up of these women, based on 1.2 million women years of exposure, was published in the British Medical Journal. The results are stunning: women using oral contraceptive “had a significantly lower rate of death from any cause.”  They had fewer melanomas, ovarian, uterine and bowel cancers, and, over a life time, less heart disease.  Perhaps if Pope Paul VI had known these findings he would not have rejected the Pill as unnatural.

In the long history of the Church it is not surprising that errors arose in interpreting the world around us. In 1633 the Vatican condemned Galileo’s insight that the earth went round the sun. Understanding human reproduction has taken longer than calculating the orbits of the planets. When St Augustine wrote in the 4th century, not even the ovaries were understood, let alone the role of hormones circulating in the blood.  Whether the sun goes round the earth or the earth goes round the sun is intellectually interesting, but it does not harm anyone in any way.  When Pope Paul VI condemned the Pill and other artificial contraceptives in 1968, he caused suffering to millions of loving couples.  Tragically, admitting that Augustine and Humane vitae were wrong is likely to prove more difficult than apologizing for putting Galileo’s book on the Index over 350 years earlier – which Pope John Paul did in 1992, writing about “The error of the theologians of the time.”

At long last, Pope Benedict has had the courage and integrity to open one check point in the Berlin Wall of sexual theology.  Will he now welcome the millions who will try to demolish the rest of the wall? Or will he try to close the gate?  If he does he will be too late.

Comments to “Pope Benedict, tear down this wall

  1. Sir, This article is amazing, from someone who first-hand sees the real effects of what banning of artificial contraception does to a people.

    Please, if it is possible, help the Philippines overturn the iron rule of the Roman Catholic Church, it is consistently strangling a Reproductive Health Bill that has been waiting already 16 years to pass. Many people’s lives and futures are at stake.

  2. Thank you for the article. It is so incredibly disturbing that The Catholic Church prevents condom use. I hope that the recent comment by the pope is an indication of future trends.


  3. Thanks for a great article on such a disturbing subject. I can’t understand why anyone or church would not help promote something that could help stop this terrible disease.
    Jacquelyn Dunn

  4. Thank you for a great blog. It was interesting to see the back-peddling and clarifications offered after the Pope’s initial statements on condom use. I believe they have now been pared down to allow use of condoms only for gay prostitutes to stop the spread of the disease. As recently as 2009 Ratzinger, specifically refering to condoms influence on the spread of AIDS in Africa said: they will “increase the problem”. Based on this I don’t have much optimism for what the Vatican will do next.

  5. Professor Potts:

    I meant to include this with my previous comment and do so now as a P.S. The health follow-up re: the use of the pill is interesting. In the interest of fairness you might have added the mounting evidence that links long term use of the “combination pill” with certain types of breast cancer.

    David McGraw, M.Sc., MPH

  6. Dear Professor Potts:

    I am a 68 year old cradle Catholic, graduate of Catholic schools and of Cal (MPH 1982). As any educated Catholic can tell you Catholic theology teaches the absolute supremacy of one’s informed conscience over what the pope may say (an informed conscience, not a convenient one.) That is why most of these Catholics ignored the pope’s 1964 encyclical on birth control, and still do today. The tragedy of 1964 was that the hand wringing PP VI did not take other advice he was given at the time: update the Church teaching on human sexuality in light of 20th century knowledge, issue that teaching and then issue a new teaching on birth control (making it allowable as a matter of informed conscience). Sadly that did not happen. The Catholic Church missed many opportunities after Vatican II and it is currently in great crisis around pedophilia, often associated with immature psychological development around human sexuality. However, the Church has lasted for 2000 years and will last many more, despite the current poor leadership.

    You mention bishops burning condoms (now that I’d love to see). Most bishops (this pope is an exception) are not theologians but rather politicians, and not very good ones at that. After their behavior in the pedophilia mess (e.g. Bernard Law of Boston) most American Catholics do not consider them to have the moral authority to dictate individual Catholic sexual behavior; birth control or otherwise.

    • Dear Mr Mc Graw,

      You misrepresent yourself. You are a Cafeteria Catholic, not a cradle Catholic.

      Pope Paul VI predicted grave consequences that would arise from the widespread and unrestrained use of contraception. He warned, “Upright men can even better convince themselves of the solid grounds on which the teaching of the Church in this field is based if they care to reflect upon the consequences of methods of artificially limiting the increase of children. Let them consider, first of all, how wide and easy a road would thus be opened up towards conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality. Not much experience is needed in order to know human weakness, and to understand that men—especially the young, who are so vulnerable on this point—have need of encouragement to be faithful to the moral law, so that they must not be offered some easy means of eluding its observance. It is also to be feared that the man, growing used to the employment of anti-conceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman and, no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion” (HUMANAE VITAE 17).

      No one can doubt the fulfillment of these prophetic words. They have all been more than fulfilled in this country as a result of the widespread availability of contraceptives, the “free love” movement that started in the 1960s, and the loose sexual morality that it spawned and that continues to pervade Western culture.

      Indeed, recent studies reveal a far greater divorce rate in marriages in which contraception is regularly practiced than in those marriages where it is not. Experience, natural law, Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium, all testify to the moral evil of contraception.

      Ignoring the mountain of evidence, some maintain that the Church considers the use of contraception a matter for each married couple to decide according to their “individual conscience.” Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. The Church has always maintained the historic Christian teaching that deliberate acts of contraception are always gravely sinful, which means that it is mortally sinful if done with full knowledge and deliberate consent (CCC 1857). This teaching cannot be changed and has been taught by the Church infallibly.

      There is no way to deny the fact that the Church has always and everywhere condemned artificial contraception. The matter has already been infallibly decided. The so-called “individual conscience” argument amounts to “individual disobedience.”

  7. Courageous yes, but considering the immense impact an edict of this magnitude will have on those who strictly follow Catholic doctrine, it would be kind to proceed slowly – but surely.

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