Questions Answered

  • Has the church changed her teaching on condom use to prevent the spread of HIV? 
  • Can you tell me the origin of celibacy as a requirement for the priesthood  and why the Western Church puts so much emphasis on it?

Question:  In the debate over condom use to prevent the spread of the HIV virus, some people think the Church has changed her teaching on this subject.  Has she?

Answer:  Msgr. William Smith addressed this issue in the December 2001 issue of Homiletic and Pastoral Review. This occasioned considerable debate at the time as there were many theologians who publically dissented from the teaching of the Church on many subjects, and advocated the use of condoms in this situation. I have chosen to answer this question both in memory of the masterful moral teachings of Msgr. Smith, and because this, and many similar issues, seem to continue to arise despite urgent efforts at clarification by the Magisterium.

The Church has not changed her teaching on this subject. It is summarized briefly in a reply of the Holy See to a U.N. document on this subject which is cited by Msgr. Smith in his column: “The Holy See wishes to emphasize that, with regard to the use of condoms as a means of preventing HIV, it has in no way changed its moral position.…The Holy See also regrets that irresponsible, unsafe and high-risk behavior were not adequately discussed and addressed in preparing this Declaration. Finally, the Holy See continues to call attention to the undeniable fact that the only safe and completely reliable method of preventing the sexual transmission of HIV is abstinence before marriage, and respect and mutual fidelity within marriage. The Holy See believes that this is, and must always be, the foundation of any discussion of prevention and support.” (Osservatore Romano, Eng. July 11, 2001, 10; Cited in Msgr. William B. Smith, Modern Moral Problems, Ignatius Press, 208)

Many Catholic theologians dissent from this teaching. As Msgr. Smith showed in 2001 and 2002 in an ongoing dispute with these moralists, in some cases, their opinions are based on selective readings of theological literature; and in other cases, on a simple misunderstanding of the purpose of sexual union. There are a number of theologians cited in the previous exchange with Msgr. Smith who maintain that they are following merely traditional principles, like the double effect, gradualism, or material cooperation in recommending condom use to prevent HIV. I do not wish to prolong this argument which was treated well in the already published columns of Msgr. Smith.  I do wish to add one point here.

For the last 50 years, there has been a slow erosion of Catholic moral teaching, in both theory and practice, often at the hands of Catholic priests, theologians, and teachers.  The HIV-condom controversy is just another chapter in a dispute which is actually over principles. The actual theoretical source of this dispute can be traced to an article which Karl Rahner, S.J., wrote in his monumental Theological Studies, called “On the Question of a Formal Existential Ethics.” This was published in English in 1963 during the Second Vatican Council. In this article, Rahner maintains that there are two sciences of ethics: “material essentialist ethics,” which are all the universal laws and teachings of the Church; and “formal existential ethics,” which is the application of the individual conscience of these laws. This application employs the rules for discernment of spirits in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius for every single moral choice.  Rahner specifically states that the conscience is not just an application of the law to the case.  At least in theory, the Holy Spirit could lead a person to act against the law in every single moral choice if the circumstances warranted it.

This caesura between “universal” and “particular” is characteristic of nominalism, and is at the root of the modern school called “consequentialism” or “moderate teleology.” The followers of Rahner are many, and may be found under many different headings, and with many different nuances, but the single universal principle which guides them is that there are no moral absolutes.  Another way to put this is that no moral action can be judged until the intention and circumstances are considered. On this position, the Church teaches that this is true of good actions but not of evil ones. In the case in question in this article, condom use would presuppose intercourse. It thus frustrates the objective design of the marriage act. Though, of course, one should do all one can to stop the spread of an epidemic like the HIV virus, if this entails the complete divorce of children from sexuality, it is evil and cannot be done.


Question: In the recent election of Pope Francis, the whole question of revisiting celibacy as a requirement for the priesthood came up. Can you tell me the origin of this discipline and why the Western Church puts so much emphasis on it.

Answer: It is strange how the issue of celibacy is constantly raised when there is any change in leadership in the Church. It is as though there is something truly unnatural and inhuman in the idea of certain people in the Church giving up making love in the earthly sense. Many Christians have been so mesmerized by the overemphasis on sexual fulfillment in our culture that they believe that priests would be more human, more understanding, and more numerous if they were just allowed to marry. Marriage is even touted as a therapy for the lack of sexual mores of some of the clergy—as though it were some kind of therapeutic drug. It seems a clarification of the history and theory of the practice is important.

Concerning the subject of celibacy, there is a spurious history which was presumed for many years from the early Middle Ages. According to this history, from the time of Christ, both married men and celibates could be priests, celibacy being recommended but not required.  Then, in about the ninth century, due to pressures caused in the Western Church by lack of morals in the clergy, and the desire to insure that inheritances remain in the Church, the Western Church imposed celibacy on its members. The practice of the Eastern Church would thus be left intact as the more ancient.

New research (Clerical Celibacy in East and West, Roman Cholij, Gracewing Books, 1989) has shown that this was not the case. It is true that both married men and celibates could be ordained.  But the married men had to have had their children before ordination. At the time of their ordination, they and their wives had to make a promise that they would never again perform the conjugal act. The reason for this was the all-encompassing personal involvement which was necessary to worthily celebrate the Eucharistic sacrifice. In the Old Testament, temporary celibacy was demanded of several groups. It was temporary because of the imperfect nature of the sacrifices of the Old Law. The Mass is a participation in the eternal sacrifice of Christ on the cross. When the priest consecrates, he speaks not in his own person, but in the person of Christ, the high priest (in persona Christi capitis), and so he must identify his whole spirit with that of Christ. The general judgment of the Church, in both East and West from the time of Christ, is that performing the sexual act in marriage would detract from the complete involvement of the spirit required to consecrate the Eucharist.

In a local Eastern Council called the “Quinisext Synod” or “Council of Trullo” in 692 A.D., the Eastern Church broke with this ancient practice. For the first time, priests were allowed to have sexual relations with their wives after ordination. However, the force of the idea of total consecration was preserved somewhat. For many centuries, a priest could not celebrate the Eucharist the day after he had sexual relations with his wife. This had important consequences for Eastern Church practice. It almost ended daily Eucharist completely. As the bishop enjoys the fullness of the priesthood, the episcopacy was reserved almost exclusively to religious. The Western Church merely chose to make celibacy mandatory, shortly thereafter, out of mercy to the wives, and also to seek an end to clerical promiscuity. Even such a formidable anti-Catholic, the German psychiatrist Richard Kraft-Ebing, recognized the spiritual and emotional importance of celibacy when he wrote in 1886 in Psychopathia Sexualis: “It shows a masterly psychological knowledge of human nature that the Roman Catholic Church enjoins celibacy upon its priests in order to emancipate them from sensuality, and to concentrate their entire activity in the pursuit of their calling.”

Today, the Church has chosen not to demand that members of the Eastern Church conform to Roman practice. This is also true of ministers or priests in Protestant denominations who have converted to Catholicism. This is by way of exception, and recognition of the fact, and value of an already contracted marriage. It should not be construed as in any way compromising the more general requirement of celibacy for the priesthood. Though for some years after Vatican II, the younger clergy seemed to want a change in celibacy, this is generally not true now. Changing the law would not solve the problem of lack of vocations.


Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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  1. Avatar Janet Secluna Thomas says:

    This topic which comes up under various headings: contraception, abortion, celibacy, Humane Vitae, family life , AIDS prevention, limiting families, IVF, embryo research etc. is almost never the subject of a homily. This is so much the case that very many young Catholics are under the impression that they can make up their own minds about these issues and call it “following my conscience”! It is, of course, not that there are no Catholics, young or otherwise, who follow the Church’s teaching faithfully, but that in the ordinary life of the parish, or even diocese, they tend to be despised and, sometimes, accused of being less than chaste. It is little wonder that many Catholics prefer to join the crowd than stand out and be abused.