The Theology of Condom and the Choice of Life and Death
by Okumephuna Chukwunwike (Rome, Italy) —- As a Roman Catholic and an African, am already worried about what would be the outcome of the instruction being prepared by the Pontifical Council for Health on the use of condom by married couples in the fight against HIV and AIDS which are already causing havoc in different parts of the world but especially in Africa which unfortunately is bearing the highest brunt of these epidemics today.
I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of the instruction but am very much afraid and worried that once again a very important issue bordering on human life would further be complicated by a many-paged academic locubrations from the Vatican. I am also afraid that the outcome may not be very far from the traditional views of the Roman Catholic Church. The instruction is likely at the end of the day to repeat the Vatican cliché and familiar tune of procreation being the essence of marital sex and therefore whatever goes against this would be considered obstruction to the Will of God and therefore not just a sin but a mortal one that can only be absolved by bishops. That in itself is a plausible argument and quite understandable because it makes every sense. But we have to take a holistic view of this argument from the theory of lesser evil to grasp the reason the Roman Catholic Church should for once be liberal on issues like this, after all we are talking now not about contraception but saving of life.
I am just wondering what would have been the response of Our Lord Jesus Christ if He were still present physically with us here on earth. But before then recall that instead of outright condemnation He told an adulterous woman to go and sin no more. Recall again that when accused of breaking the Sabbath day by healing a diseased man He asked his accusers which is lesser evil to heal a diseased man on the Sabbath day or to abandon him in his suffering and sorrow. Bearing these in mind then, I have no doubt that Christ would have sanctioned the use of condom by married couples in the fight against the spread of HIV and AIDS. He would probably have asked which is lesser evil to contact a disease and die or to prevent a disease and live.
A conservative Roman Catholic may not appreciate the tone of this argument, if he has not been to Africa or other parts of the world similar to Africa. Still he is not likely to read further if he has not been privileged to know what it means to be poor or ignorant. An Italian friend once told me a story of his poverty, which at the end of the day left me, confused on what poverty is. I was very much confused because this is a young man like myself who lives in a two-bedroom apartment in the centre of Rome with a nice small car and of course has been touring the world in the last four years each summer on vacation. He is just 26, has a degree in Architecture and still has more brighter future ahead of him and he told me he is poor. I was a little offended because that statement was made in a midst of a very serious conversation. Well at the end of the day I concluded that this young man should take a vacation to Africa to see what the other side of the world is all about. This is his idea of being poor and am sure that this apply also to other Europeans and Americans who have not been to Africa. In fact if that is what poverty is all about I pray the Lord to bless Africa with more poverty in Jesus name, Amen.
My argument is not actually that Africa is poor as such. Africa has a lot of natural, manmade and intellectual resources to lead the world but as a result of injustice being condoned by the west, Africa may not enjoy in the next one thousand years what Europeans and Americans are taking for granted today. For instance all the money looted from my country Nigeria by our corrupt politicians past and present including the current President Olusegun Obasanjo and his fellow compatriots are either in Swiss banks or inform of assets in other European and American cities. As a result Africa today has an unenviable record of being the world poorest continent and having a huge population of the poorest of the poor and illiterates. From this picture it could be appreciated how African problems including health issues, terrorism, wars, conflicts and the likes are intertwined with poverty and illiteracy. It can only take a visit to understand this scenario well.
Therefore the proposed instruction if not taken into consideration the African background may end up being offensive to Africans especially bearing in mind that most Vatican polices in the past have been Ameri-Eurocentric with little or less contribution from Africa which has if not the highest population of active Roman Catholics, the second largest in the world. It seems the Vatican has also this attitude that nothing good comes out of Africa and therefore consulting them for their contributions may not be important. As it is well known the present Vatican stand on the reason condom should not be used as lesser evil in the fight against the virus is based on the 1968 document ‘Humanae Vitae’ issued by the papacy of Pope Paul VI though the document had no HIV and AIDS in mind in the first place before its debut.
The summary of the document is that the essence of marital sex is procreation and therefore any use of sexual device within marriage, which impedes that plan, is immoral and therefore a sin. Good! But we are today talking about saving and prolonging that life. I have no doubt that when the document was issued, there has not been reported any case of HIV and AIDS. Am sure also that little or no African consultation was deemed necessary before the issuance of the document. They would have advised on the over technicality of the documents and why it may not work in Africa. I have not also stopped wondering if that highly academic document is meant to instruct my illiterate parents, brothers and sisters back home in my poor small village in Nigeria. Having lived in Europe for quite sometime, I have no doubt that most Europeans are not just ignorant of what happens in Africa but lacks even the simplest basic fact about the continent.
Nigeria may be an exception to this argument because we are fortunate to have a reasonable number of educated people and families who live a little above average of poverty level. In fact about 60% of our about 120 million population live below poverty level. But then the twin issue of HIV and AIDS have not been very fair to us as a country. Today with about 3.5 million people living with the virus out of that population of about 120 million, we have the third highest rate of the burden after South Africa and India. These three countries have also noticed in the last few years the continuous depletion of its active population especially those between the ages of 18 and 45 and consequently the leaving behind of huge army of orphans with the virus as clearly witnessed in countries such as South Africa, Uganda and Botswana and of course Nigeria and India. In these countries, it is now a case of grandparents taking care of their HIV and AIDS infected grandchildren.
That is actually not the most pathetic part of the story. The most pathetic side is that these grandparents do not have the strength and the money to feed their hungry grandchildren who die daily as a result of hunger and complications associated with these viruses. Let us not talk about the life saving Antiretroviral Therapy because it will expose a lot of corruption in the African health system. Before leaving Nigeria in October 13, 2005 out of 3.5 million Nigerians who are living with the virus, it was only about less than 10,000 that were benefiting from the Federal Government sponsored Antiretroviral Therapy Programme. The Government actually had an ambition to raise it to 150,000 by June of this year but the fact is that it is only the rich and those connected with the rich that have access to this programme thereby leaving thousands of the poor suffering masses to their fate. Due to the ignorance and illiteracy level of the poor masses the cycle of transmission continues spreading sparing nobody not even the riches who depend on the poor for their sexual gratifications in exchange for money, employment and other gratifications.
And therefore for one to stay in the Vatican and issue a highly academic instruction to poor dying souls in remote villages in Africa living under this condition would not only be considered funny but highly offensive to Africans. It would not only tantamount to not appreciating our sufferings and plights but also ridiculing and scorning us while we suffer and die. Christ who refused to endorse the stoning to death of a woman, Mary Magdalene caught in adultery and forgave those who killed Him would certainly have not kept Africans in a very difficult situation like this if He were still alive. I have the impression that the Vatican at the moment is busy circumlocuting and debating over a cup of coffee while people are dying elsewhere. It could be very dangerous placing the faithful on a very high moral pedestal. May be it was because of this that Christ forewarned that we should first remove the log of wood in our eyes before looking for a speck in that of our neighbour.
Being a former health journalist with the Guardian Newspapers of Nigeria, I was opportuned to have almost a two year interaction with people living with the virus especially women and children. Most women I met and spoke with told me that they contacted the virus from their husbands. Africa is a very patriarchical society and therefore women have little or no say in the family not even on issues that is about them like sex negotiation with their husbands. To refuse your husband sex is considered highly offensive. In most African cultures, men do not sin and therefore a man having extra-marital affair is considered normal while a woman could be publicly disgraced or even stoned to death for the same offence. This is just a little picture on how most women get the virus from their husbands in Africa on daily basis. It is also how some women infect their husbands. But it should also be noted that even though these women know that their husbands are already infected and that this situation could endanger their own lives and that of their children, due to societal pressure and culture they are forced to continue to fulfil their marital obligation by ensuring that their husbands are supplied with sex whenever and wherever he needs it.
Under this difficult situation the stand of the church is that they should not use condom under the pain of mortal sin. This has left them under a very difficult situation. They are left with no option at all and for them to remain good and loyal Roman Catholics they must remain subject to their infected partners.
I have been wondering what manner of love would make a woman to subject herself to her infected husband to the detriment of their children. I personally believe and think that what would be the right thing to do under this circumstance is for the partners to enter into an agreement that will put an end to sex within that marriage. Simply put a sexless marriage. But since this idea sounds angelic and utopian, I strongly believe that something must be done to save that marriage and protect those lives. It is therefore based on this argument that I strongly believe that the use of condom by the partners justifies itself as lesser evil. Though some quarters are of the opinion that Condom may not be highly effective in the halt of this virus but experts are of the opinion that if well used condom can protect the transmission of HIV and AIDS to a reasonable extent. I think couples should be allowed to make a choice in this case and the Vatican could be of immense help by not placing a very big obstacle to this choice. A man who has never married, I mean a celibate may not be competent to talk on this issue.
Therefore the Vatican while still preparing this document should endeavour to make it have a human face and realistic tone. If it sounds too utopian and angelic, it would put us in a very difficult situation and add to our already heavy burden. It may also force most Roman Catholics in Africa to follow their conscience especially at this difficult and trying time they have only two options of choosing either life or death. And being an African who has seen a lot of brothers and sisters and friends succumb to the virus, I have no doubt that we are likely to choose life if the church refuse us that precious option of life. It may seem unreasonable for us to join in a dance step of a music we do not know its tune.
Am just wondering what the Roman Catholic Church would stand to gain if tomorrow our pastors open the church to see empty pews simply because we have all died of the virus. God forbid we should get to that stage but even if we must get there the church should make hays while the sun shines to place itself under moral obligation to act fast to save our life and the church of tomorrow.