Background Briefing

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III. Condoms and the Vatican

Official Roman Catholic teaching, as expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is silent on the use of condoms against HIV/AIDS.  However, Roman Catholic teaching opposes the use of condoms for artificial birth control, and many bishops’ conferences, Vatican officials, and theologians have interpreted this as an all-out ban on condom use for any purpose.  Catholic leaders have repeatedly made public statements discouraging condom promotion. On World AIDS day in 2003, Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, president of the Pontifical Council for Health and Pastoral Care, stressed the importance of programs that focus on abstinence and fidelity.38  In addition, the Holy See has taken advantage of the unique level of access afforded by its non-member permanent observer status at the United Nations to lobby for the exclusion of references to condoms in U.N. policy documents.39

Statements by senior Vatican officials suggest that the Roman Catholic church’s principal objection to condoms is that they promote sexual promiscuity.  In December 2003, Cardinal Alfonso Lòpez Trujillo, the president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, wrote that “condoms may even be one of the main reasons for the spread of HIV/AIDS.”  In the same statement, Trujillo praised members of the Spanish Episcopal Council for taking a stand against condom promotion programs on the grounds that they “tend to be deceitful, . . . hide information, and because they do not contribute towards prevention, but rather to a greater spread of risky behaviour.”40  This statement built upon comments Trujillo had made in 1995 that teaching children sex education was an “abuse” and that the promotion of “safer sex” was “a dangerous and immoral policy based on the deluded theory that the condom can provide adequate protection against AIDS.”41

As in the United States, condom opponents within the Roman Catholic church have at times made false scientific claims about condoms in order to buttress their moral arguments.  In an October 2003 interview with the BBC, for example, Cardinal Trujillo suggested that HIV can permeate microscopic pores in condoms.  Calling the use of condoms “a form of Russian roulette,” Trujillo stated: “The AIDS virus is roughly 450 times smaller than the spermatozoon [spermatozoa].  The spermatozoon can easily pass through the ‘net’ that is formed by the condom.”42  Trujillo’s claim was not new.  Since 2002, various bishops have claimed that HIV can permeate condoms, called for health warnings on condom packets, and cited anti-condom studies by the pro-“abstinence-only” Medical Institute for Sexual Health.43

The claim that condoms contain microscopic pores that are permeable by HIV pathogens flies in the face of science.44  In October 2003, the World Health Organization dismissed claims of condom porosity as “totally wrong.”45  Simultaneously, the European Union Commission criticized the Vatican’s campaign against condoms for being unscientific and for contributing to the spread of the epidemic by discouraging condom use.46  In 2004, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa challenged the Roman Catholic claim that promoting condoms leads to promiscuity.47  In June 2001, UNAIDS director Peter Piot publicly asked the Roman Catholic Church to stop opposing the use of condoms against AIDS, saying that “when priests preach against contraception, they are committing a serious mistake which is costing human lives.”48

Anti-condom messages promoted by senior Vatican officials can exert considerable influence over national and regional Catholic bishops’ conferences.  In 2003, for example, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) successfully blocked legislation that would have authorized the use of national funds for condoms and other contraceptive supplies.49  The CBCP issued in 1993 a statement that condemned the promotion of condoms against HIV/AIDS as “tantamount to condoning promiscuity and sexual permissiveness.”  In 2004, the Croatian Bishop’s Conference also opposed condom education efforts.  In 2001 Catholic bishops from southern Africa condemned the use of condoms to fight AIDS,50 a position they reaffirmed in October of 2003.51  Bishops from southern Africa are not unanimous in the position, however.  Kevin Dowling, a bishop from South Africa, has been outspoken in his position that opposition to condoms amounts to a death sentence for women, particularly in Africa, who cannot insist on abstinence or fidelity.52

[38] P. Pullella, “Vatican defends anti-condom stand on AIDS Day,” Reuters, December 1, 2003.  Cardinal Barragan has condoned the use of condoms in the limited situation where a woman cannot refuse her HIV-positive husband's sexual advances.  Other cardinals, including Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium, have voiced a more expansive version of this “lesser-evils” approach; in May 2004, Daneels told a Catholic television program that if an HIV-positive person insists on having sex, “He has to use a condom.  Otherwise he will commit a sin” by risking transmission of a potentially fatal virus.  Associated Press, “Clergymen suggest exceptions to Vatican condom ban to halt HIV,” Taipei Times, March 24, 2004, p. 9.

[39] See footnote 16, above.  The Holy See has joined the United States in supporting many of these resolutions, along with countries such as Sudan, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Iran (at the 2001 U.N. Special Session on Children) and Iran, Libya, Pakistan, and Sudan (at the 2002 U.N. Special Session on HIV/AIDS).

[40] Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, “Family Values versus Safe Sex:  A Reflection by His Eminence, Alfonso Cardinal Lopez Trujillo, President, Pontifical Council for the Family,” December 1, 2003, online: (retrieved August 26, 2004).

[41] The Pontifical Council for the Family, “the Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality:  Guidelines for Education within the Family,” online: (retrieved August 26, 2004).

[42] BBC News, “Vatican in HIV condom row,” (retrieved February 13, 2004).

[43] AFP, “Catholic Cardinal suggests health warning on condom packets,” October 13, 2003; “Why the fuss about condoms?” The Tablet, February 1, 2003; “Zambia: ‘Luo’s Condom Plan is Killing Our People’,” Africa News, May 8, 2002 (quoting the pastoral coordinator of the Catholic Archdiocese of Zambia, Fr. Evaristo Chungu, as saying, “Scientists themselves agree that condoms have been failing to prevent pregnancy, and as the head of the spermatozoa is 50 times as large as the less than one micro AIDS virus, no informed person would believe that the condom will be more than occasionally effective”); Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care: Pontifical Council for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, Pontifical Council for the Family, “The Reproductive Health of Refugees: A Note for the Bishops' Conferences,” September 14, 2001 (criticizing a U.N. manual calling for the provision of condoms in refugee situations on the grounds that condoms have “not an insignificant percentage of failure.”)

[44] See U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Fact Sheet for Public Health Personnel: Male Latex Condoms and Sexually Transmitted Diseases,” (retrieved April 15, 2004); six studies cited in R. Gardner, R.D. Blackburn, and U.D. Upadhyay, Closing the Condom Gap: Population Reports, series H, no. 9 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, Populations Information Program, 1999), p. 13;  European Union Commission, “HIV/AIDS: European Research provides clear proof that HIV virus cannot pass through condoms,” Brussels, October 20, 2003; National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, “Workshop Summary: Scientific Evidence on Condom Effectiveness for Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) Prevention,” July 20, 2001, p. 7.

[45] T. Rachman, “Cardinal’s Comments on AIDS and Condoms Draw Criticism from UN Health Agency,” Associated Press, October 10, 2003.  See also, “Cardinal’s Statement ‘Could Contribute to Spread of HIV/AIDS,’ Warns UNFPA leader,” UNFPA press release, October 13, 2003.

[46] “HIV/AIDS: EU blasts Vatican over condom claims”, EUBusiness, October 21, 2003, available at

[47] “Catholics dismayed over Tutu's criticism,” SABC News, February 25, 2004, available at,2172,74707,00.html

[48] Agence France-Presse (AFP), “Church’s Stand against Contraception Costs Lives,” AIDS Education Global Information System- News (AEGiS-News), June 29, 2001, available at

[49] This and other religiously-motivated restrictions on condoms in the Philippines are documented in Human Rights Watch, Unprotected, pp. 13-20, 28-44.

[50] S. Swindells, “African Bishops Slam Condom Use in Aids Fight,” Daily Mail and Guardian (South Africa), July 31, 2001, online: (retrieved August 26, 2004).

[51] C. Sylla, “African Church Rejects Condom Use Despite High HIV Infection Rate,” Agence France-Presse via Clarinet, October 9, 2003, online: (retrieved August 26, 2004). 

[52] See, e.g., G. J. MacDonald, “Bishop Kevin Dowling: South African bishop battles church in battling AIDS,” National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 2004, online: (retrieved August 26, 2004).

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