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Debate: Catholic Church contraception policy

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Is the Roman Catholic Church's contraception policy justifiable?

Background and context

The Catholic Church forbids the use of barrier methods of contraception such as condoms and treats emergency contraception such as the morning-after pill as a means of abortion. The Church’s policy was ‘reemphasised’ by Paul VI’s encyclical letter ‘Humanae Vitae’ in 1968. This draws a distinction between ‘Natural Family Planning’ where couples seek to have sex when the woman is not ovulating (such as the rhythm method, temperature charts and cervical mucus examination), which the church allows, and unnatural barrier methods which the church considers a sin.
The logic behind the distinction is that whilst both methods prevent fertilisation, the former is based on the observation of the natural rhythms of life created by God, hence God has not made the woman fertile rather than humans preventing the creation of new life. Condoms can prevent both the HIV/AIDS epidemic (a fact which the Catholic Church now recognises after years of denial) and high population growth which afflicts some of the world’s poorest countries. The Catholic Church believes that abstinence and Natural Family Planning are viable alternatives to the use of barrier methods in solving both of these problems and whilst Natural Family Planning is not effective for casual sex (which the Catholic Church condemns in any case), it can be effective as part of stable marriages. Historically Christianity has not been united over Contraception. From the 1930s most Protestant sects have allowed the use of condoms in their teaching. The Catholic Birth Control Commission (1963-66) in fact voted 30 to 5 in favour of allowing the use of contraception but was overruled by the Pope. However, the Church maintains that the use of contraception is a violation of natural law, that it is forbidden by the biblical passage in Genesis which describes the spilling of Onan’s seed, and that it is prohibited in the Apostolic tradition by the teachings of the First Council of Nicaea and St. Augustine. Recently the debate has been reignited by the statement by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, a senior Cardinal under Pope Benedict, that condoms are the “lesser evil” in the fight against AIDS. Such a stance of allowing limited use of condoms has long been taken by more liberal African and Latin American clergy, such as Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan of Mexico.

Contents

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HIV/AIDS: Is Church policy on contraceptives appropriate in context of HIV/AIDS?

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Yes

  • Church contraception policy focuses on saving souls not lives The opposition puts this debate in a very different context, seeing it within the framework of the Catholic Church. The Church’s priority is not for life on earth, which is merely a passing phase in our existence, but rather for the care of our immortal souls. The Church believes that if its followers use contraception they are violating natural law, scripture and church teaching, hence sinning and (given that Catholics do not accept ‘Justification by Faith Alone’) condemning their immortal souls to an eternity in hell. Avoiding this is more important than preventing death from HIV/AIDS by condom-use. As Jesus said, "Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it" (Mk 8:35).
  • Evil (condoms) should not be used to fight evil (HIV/AIDS). Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI - Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, or that such intercourse would merge with procreative acts of past and future to form a single entity, and so be qualified by exactly the same moral goodness as these. Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good," it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (18)—in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general. Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.
  • If people followed Christian principles; they would not contract HIV/AIDS. The twin problems of AIDS and population growth are not a direct result of Church teaching but rather Catholics picking and choosing which doctrines to follow. Abstinence before marriage on the part of both parties and faithfulness within is very effective in terms of limiting the spread of HIV/AIDS, as are Natural Family Planning methods at preventing unwanted pregnancy. Indeed the Burundian Catholic Church has gone even further and advocated compulsory HIV testing before it allows members of its congregation to marry. Good Catholics who follow doctrine fully are at a very low risk and the Church cannot be held responsible for those who simply pick and choose which articles of faith they wish to obey.
  • Following divine law on contraceptives is hard but necessary Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI - Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.
From the text of a statement issued by the bishops of South Africa following their semiannual meeting, where they considered a change in their official condoms policy in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic - “[W]idespread and indiscriminate promotion of condoms [is] an immoral and misguided weapon in our battle against HIV-AIDS. …[C]ondoms may even be one of the main reasons for the spread of HIV-AIDS.”
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No

Father Valeriano Paitoni, working in São Paulo, Brazil, summarized this perspective: “AIDS is a world epidemic, a public-health problem that must be confronted with scientific advances and methods that have proven effective,” he said. “Rejecting condom use is to oppose the fight for life.”"
  • Church policy against contraceptives worsens HIV/AID pandemic There are clear harms that result from even a small proportion of the world’s 1.09 billion baptised Catholics (143m and 541m of whom live in Africa and Latin America respectively) failing to use condoms to protect against AIDS. In 2003 there were 43m HIV/AIDS sufferers worldwide, 29.4m of whom lived in Sub-Saharan Africa with the total figure predicted to double by 2010. The Catholic Church is thus partly responsible for at least some of the 3.1m deaths every year from HIV/AIDS. Whilst the trend in European nations is towards lapsed Catholicism, in Africa strict obedience to the Church’s teachings remains strong and so it is reasonable to assume that the Church could prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths by changing its policy.
A preponderance of medical research demonstrates that condoms help prevent the spread of HIV. For example, the European Study Group on Heterosexual Transmission of HIV followed 124 discordant couples (in which only one of the pair is..."
  • Condoms prevent transmission of death, not merely transmission of life Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg, South Africa, on the need to change the church’s policy on condoms in the fact of the AIDS epidemic [“Condoms for Catholics?” Newsweek, July 20, 2001]. - "The use of a condom can be seen not as a means to prevent the ‘transmission of life’ leading to pregnancy, but rather as a means to prevent the ‘transmission of death’ to another."[2]
Given these realities, isn’t opposing the use of condoms tantamount to condemning countless women to death? In the midst of the AIDS epidemic, which has already killed tens of millions and preys disproportionately on the poor, the condom acts as a contra mortem and its use is justified by the Catholic consistent ethic of life."
  • Condoms are needed where abstinence is not an option for women Marcella Alsan. "Catholic Church condom prohibition comes face to face with reality of AIDS in Africa". Catholic.com. 24 April 2006 - "Of course, never having sex will significantly reduce the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. (It will not, though, completely eliminate the risk of contracting HIV, since the virus is also transmitted via blood products, birthing, and breastfeeding.) But the Vatican must be made aware that abstaining from sex is not a choice that many women living in the developing world have. To preach fidelity and abstinence assumes that a woman can determine with whom she sleeps and when – a grave misunderstanding of the relations between the sexes in places where women are sometimes betrothed at birth or sold for cattle. How can the Vatican continue to prohibit the use of a life-saving intervention amid a pandemic of unprecedented proportions? By reflexively invoking Humane vitae whenever the condom issue arises, the church has tragically misdiagnosed the moral problem at hand."
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Dignity of life: Does condom-use violate the dignity of life?

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Yes

  • Contraceptive-use undermines the dignity of life.
  • Pregnancy is a gift, not something to be prevented/avoided.


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No

  • If life begins at conception, contraception cannot violate life. One of the main Catholic arguments against abortion is that life begins at conception, or when the sperm enters the egg. This argument can work, however, against the Catholic position on contraception. If life begins when the sperm enters the egg, contraception cannot be seen as taking a newly formed human life; contraception occurs before life has started. Therefore, it cannot be said to violate the dignity of life as it relates to a fertilized egg or an unborn child.


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Sexual morality: Does condom-use violate principles of sexual morality?

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Yes

  • Contraception undermines sexual morality; encourages promiscuity, infidelity Humanae Vitae. Pope Paul VI. 1968 - "Consequences of Artificial Methods. 17. Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law."


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No

  • Condom-use is a responsible act of sexual maturity and prevention Condom-use, in modernity, is seen as a wise and responsible act for those that are sexually active. The Church wrongly teaches that condom-use leads to irresponsible sexual immorality. On the contrary, the decision to use contraception during sexual intercourse requires that an individual responsibly consider the consequences of their action (i.e. the possibility of impregnation and/or transmitting STDs such as HIV/AIDS). Contraceptive use, therefore, characterizes responsible sexual behavior; not the opposite.
  • Sexual morality can/should go hand-in-hand with condom-use There is no reason that sexual morality cannot be taught along with the distribution of condoms. The possession of condoms does not, in itself, motivate sexual immorality and irresponsibility; many other cultural factors are involved. Teaching proper sexual morals can easily accompany condom distribution and use.


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"Multiply": Does God's commandment to "multiply" support a condom ban?

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Yes

  • Contraceptives violate God's commandment to "multiply" The Hebrew Bible clearly promotes prolific childbirth in opposition to the use of contraception. - "be fruitful and multiply" (Gen 1:28). This is considered by Jews and Christians as his first commandment, because it is written at the very beginning of Genesis, the first book of the Bible.


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No

  • Condoms help people regulate their reproductive "multiplication". If a couple wanted to have ten children, it is feasible that they could. Is this what God commanded? Obviously not. This would be unreasonable and would force a couple to sacrifice certain other areas in which they are meant to fulfill God's will. Therefore, God intended for humans to regulate their reproduction and even minimize their offspring. Condoms are a reasonable way to do this. And, obviously, the use of condoms does not mean that a couple will not fulfill God's commandment to "multiply". In fact, a couple could use condoms, but still decide to have ten children.


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"Spilling seed": Does this Biblical passage support Church policy?

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Yes

  • Contraception wrongly aids in "spilling the seed" Onan is condemned in the Bible for "spilling his seed". Genesis 38:9-10, states that during intercourse Onan "spilled his seed on the ground" (coitus interruptus). This was "evil in the sight of the Lord" and was punished by Onan's death. This is an explicit condemnation of birth-control or the wasting of sperm.


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No

  • "Spilling seed" is not what God found wicked about Onan's acts The passage in Genesis 38:9-10 doesn't say that "spilling the seed" was wicked in the sight of the Lord. What was detestable was Onan's decision NOT to fulfill his brotherly obligations of carrying on the lineage of his brother (Deuteronomy 25:5–6). His defiance is what was wicked in the eyes of God, as were his selfish intentions... not the actual act of "spilling the seed." Nowhere in the Bible does it state that contraception is wicked in the eyes of the Lord, and the Genesis 38 passage is no different.
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Theology: What other justifications support Church condom policy?

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Yes

  • Pope Paul VI ruled against contraception in the 1960s; this ruling stands. The 1963-66 commission was set up only to advise the Pope and ultimately until a subsequent Pope decrees otherwise it is he who is the Supreme arbiter of the Church’s policy, acting as Christ’s representative on Earth. No Pope has re-ruled on contraception since Paul so it is his interpretation that must stand.
  • Church contraception policy is supported by natural law: The Catholic position on contraception is highly influenced by the natural law theory of Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, which deems that sexuality has as its end purpose, procreation; to interfere in this end would be a violation of the natural law, and thus, a sin.
  • The fathers of the Catholic Church condemned contraception. “the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted” (Clement of Alexandria). In light of controversy over whether Paul VI’s ruling was infallible, the Church has even as recently as 1997 stated that Rome considers it as a matter of scripture and hence “definitive and irreformable” (Vademecum for Confessors 2:4).


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No

  • Priests need not promote condoms, but should not ban them UNAIDS Director Peter Piot said in 2001: “When priests preach against using contraception, they are committing a serious mistake which is costing human lives. We do not ask the church to promote contraception, but merely to stop banning its use.”[4]
  • The 1960 Church Commission ruled in favor of contraceptives. The Commission set up to decide on a policy revision in the late 1960s took expert advice both on matters of faith and on the practical implication of allowing contraception. It came to the conclusion that it should be allowed by a significant majority but was then over-ruled in very quick succession by Pope Paul VI.
  • Pope Paul VI's 1968 ruling is not binding and can be overturned. Importantly the Papal ruling has not been defined as an interpretation of scripture (there is some argument about this) and so is not a ruling on which the Pope was infallible and which binds future Popes, hence the Church does have the ability to overturn the ruling.
  • The bible does not actually condemn the use of condemns. Scholars have for centuries argued over whether the discussion of Onan in Genesis condemns him for spilling his seed or for failing to take care of his brother’s wife.
  • The Winnipeg Statement of Canadian Catholic bishops supported condom use. It stated that Catholics could in good faith use artificial contraception.
  • Few support Catholic condom policy, undermining Church legitimacy Claire Short, the UK’s minister for international development - "The Catholic church ... opposes contraception but most Catholics in the world use it, so the Catholic church is stuck and wrong on these questions. But lots and lots of Catholics ignore the Catholic church’s teaching, including lots of good priests and nuns who are in favor of condoms being made available."[5]
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Marriage: Is condom-use bad for marriages?

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Yes

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No

  • Condoms help preserve the sexual life of a marriage. Without condoms, many married couples may have to forego sex in order to prevent further pregnancies. It is unhealthy for married couples to deny their sexual attraction to one another in this way.


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Women: Does contraception use degrade women's bodies?

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Yes

  • Contraception use leads to the degradation of women and their bodies Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI - Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.


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No

  • Contraception use, in most cases, doesn't degrade a woman's body at all This blanket statement has been a bane of Catholic teaching since the mid-1960's, when it was apparently popularized by Archbishop Wojtyla. The use of contraceptives provide both men and women with the opportunity to be promiscuous, and therefore can serve to degrade the body of either gender. But in cases of a monogamous relationship within the confines of a marriage, they allow both partners to fully enjoy sex without the constant concern of whether or not they should be expecting a child nine months afterward. Also, many people view the vasectomy as being the most effective form of birth control, which is the sole responsibility of the man and is not degrading to a woman's body in the least sense. What's more degrading to a woman: responsible birth control, or the possibility of considering, or actually having, an abortion if the couple is either unable or unwilling to care for the child?
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Demographics: Is birth-control an unfounded approach to demographic control?

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Yes

  • Contraception is an immoral approach to population control Evangelium vitae. The Gospel of Life. Pope John Paul II. 1995 - "Another present-day phenomenon, frequently used to justify threats and attacks against life, is the demographic question. This question arises in different ways in different parts of the world. In the rich and developed countries there is a disturbing decline or collapse of the birthrate. The poorer countries, on the other hand, generally have a high rate of population growth, difficult to sustain in the context of low economic and social development, and especially where there is extreme underdevelopment. In the face of over- population in the poorer countries, instead of forms of global intervention at the international level-serious family and social policies, programmes of cultural development and of fair production and distribution of resources-anti-birth policies continue to be enacted.
Contraception, sterilization and abortion are certainly part of the reason why in some cases there is a sharp decline in the birthrate. It is not difficult to be tempted to use the same methods and attacks against life also where there is a situation of "demographic explosion"."


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No

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Abortion: How do condoms relate to the Church position against abortion?

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Yes

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No

  • Condoms help Catholics avoid the prospect of abortion. The Catholic Church is adamantly anti-Abortion. It is odd, therefore, that it is so anti-Condoms, given that condom-use is the primary means to preventing unintended pregnancies and avoiding having to even consider abortion as an option.


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Effectiveness: Are Church-approved methods of birth-control effective?

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Yes

  • Natural methods of contraception can provide the solution to high population growth This is particularly true in areas where there is a cultural stigma against condom usage. (aboriginal communities in Australia provide a non-Christian example, as do even some Protestant areas in North Carolina, USA) and in areas where condom distribution is impractical. There is a disturbing rise in couples in medium term relationships who choose not to use condoms because they consider them unpleasant; for them natural methods offer an alternative to invasive procedures such as the implant.
  • Natural birth-control helps developing world avoid dependencies on developed countries. Condom use in developing countries results in a a reliance on condoms from the developed world which can often not be distributed to remote areas and need to be stored within a certain temperature range, impractical in mid-summer in Sub-Saharan Africa where refrigerators are often scarce. Indeed the WHO and the Indian Parliament have recently diverted funds towards education programmes in order to ensure that Natural Family Planning is a viable alternative to barrier methods in terms of birth control.


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No

  • Catholic Church's "natural family planning" is ineffective The rhythm method requires observations to be marked on calendars over a long period of time and it doubtful that many newlyweds have the will-power to abstain for their first month together. Experience in relatively developed nations such as Ireland shows that over the longer-term far less reliable methods such as withdrawal in fact become dominant because of the rigour required to keep track of fertility cycles. The Billing method which uses analysis of cervical temperature to determine fertility both requires accurate thermometers and that those thermometers are kept sterile in order to prevent infection, which can kill in the absence of reliable healthcare. Examination of cervical mucus has the problems of both of the previous methods, being difficult and requiring a sterile environment to prevent infection. One of the reasons cited by members of the Commission for rejecting natural methods alone was exactly this impracticality when combined with the relatively high levels of education needed for them to be effective.


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Relations: Is Church policy good for international relations?

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Yes

  • Back-tracking on Church policy against condoms would fracture the Church. Regional Churches often feel obliged to follow their faith. Rome changing its position on contraception would be seen as illegitimate by the regional Churches that are currently most vocal in their opposition to condoms. The break from Rome under Henry VIII and current Anglican controversies over gay and female bishops highlights the fragile and often decentralised nature of the Christian Church. To backtrack on matters of doctrine risks similar schisms within the Roman Catholic Church which would inevitably lead to more radical regional Churches further involving themselves in partisan politics. They may even return to a position of denial that condoms even protect against HIV/AIDS - a position which Rome and scientific pressure was instrumental in pulling them away from but which could easily have resulted in divisions. Therefore, continuity of Church policy maintains an international stability among Church's.


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No

  • Church policies against condoms are invasive against developing-country policy. The Church’s stance on contraception causes the invasive involvement of the Church in the politics of predominantly Catholic developing nations whose governments are promoting contraceptive use in order to fight AIDS. This has negative consequences for both the states and the Church. In the mid-1980s, the Catholic Bishops Conferences of the Philippines and Cardinal Sin in particular conspired to campaign against the parties of the left in order to ensure that the 1987 Constitutional settlement “protects our people against the contraceptive onslaught”. This obligation which anti-contraception bishops felt to involve themselves in politics can be attributed to the central policy of the Church. Regional Churches have also played a role in rallying support against NGOs who distribute contraceptives as part of their missions. Prohibition of contraception commits the Catholic Church to undermining the separation of Church and state which is accepted in the Constitutions of many developed nations and often to actively undermining the policies of governments designed to protect their own people.



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Public opinion: Do publics support Church policy?

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Yes

  • The Church is not a democracy; it need not respond to criticisms of its condom policies. Whilst political parties often have transparent leadership elections with one member one vote, a ‘One Catholic One Vote’ (OCOV) system for electing the Pope is inconceivable. Instead the Conclave decides in great secrecy, in a guarded anonymous-but-consensus system. So too should the Church take a strong stance on what it considers to be matters of faith. It would be bizarre to appeal to other religions such as Judaism whose teaching the Church rejects, or even to Protestantism given that Catholics’ issues with the Protestant faith run far deeper than just contraception (justification by faith alone, the sacraments, priestly status, to name but a few). Further, even if it were desirable to repeal the prohibition, to do so on a doctrine which has been exposed to so much scrutiny and has been reaffirmed by the Church as infallible would undermine Rome’s monopoly power over setting doctrinal positions. It would result in more Catholics questioning the articles of faith they find difficult to accept and destroy the validity of the doctrine of Papal infallibility. One of the central themes of religion is a struggle to accept one’s faith and the Church would be showing weakness by giving into popular pressure in this struggle.


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No

  • Few support Catholic condom policy, undermining Church legitimacy Claire Short, the UK’s minister for international development - "The Catholic church ... opposes contraception but most Catholics in the world use it, so the Catholic church is stuck and wrong on these questions. But lots and lots of Catholics ignore the Catholic church’s teaching, including lots of good priests and nuns who are in favor of condoms being made available." The Catholic Church’s survival depends on whether it can remain credible on a host of issues such as married priests and gay bishops.[6]
  • Undoing ban on condoms would prevent schisms in Church. Removal would also prevent schisms in the Church around the flashpoint of how to deal with the AIDS epidemic.
  • The Church has changed positions before; it should again on condoms. The Church is constantly under pressure to adapt to changes in a manner which is spiritually consistent but deals with issues in the material world. The process is one of natural evolution, as for instance (albeit a case in a different context) with the Church’s gradual recognition of abuse issues within its clergy, on anti-semitism or wrongdoing in genocides. Increasingly, Rome stands alone as the sole advocate of an anti-contraception policy, after the Anglican Communion’s change of policy in the 1930s, and contraception’s increased acceptance in both Orthodox and reformed Judaism. Now prominent Catholic politicians, bishops and regional Churches are accepting firstly that condoms can prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, and subsequently that in limited situations such as where one partner is HIV positive in a loving or abusive marriage, barrier contraception use should be permitted. The Church has in the past changed its views on slavery and the subjugation of women when it became apparent that they were no longer viable and this is now the case with its policy on contraception.
  • Removing Church objections to condoms would increase attendance at Church. Removing the ban on contraception would help strengthen falling Church membership in developed nations by lifting a burden placed upon its members which a majority of Catholics in developed nations see as unworkable.
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Yes


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No


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