A senior cardinal who was considered for the papacy last year said in comments published Friday that the Roman Catholic Church should soften its ban on condoms because of the scourge of AIDS.
"We must do everything to fight AIDS," said Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the retired archbishop of Milan, in Italy's L'Espresso newsweekly. "Certainly, the use of condoms can constitute in certain situations a lesser evil."
While there is no specific, authoritative Vatican policy on using condoms to protect against AIDS, the Vatican opposes condoms because they are a form of what the church calls artificial contraception. Pope Benedict XVI repeated the Vatican's position last June, when he told African bishops abstinence was the only "fail-safe" way to prevent the spread of HIV.
The 79-year-old Martini was considered a liberal alternative to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the 2005 conclave that elected Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, pope. Martini is one of the most prominent church leaders to call for an easing of the position on condoms.
Other exceptions offered
Others include Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels and Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan of Mexico, who has said condoms could sometimes be condoned, such as when a woman cannot refuse the sexual advances of her HIV-positive husband.
Martini was responding to questions from the Italian scientist and bioethicist Ignazio Marino, who heads the transplant center at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.
Martini agreed with the questioner that the church could consider condoms a "lesser evil" than the risk of the disease.
"There's also the unique situation of a married couple, one of whom is afflicted with AIDS. That one is obliged to protect the other, and the other must be able to protect him or herself," the cardinal said.
However, Martini noted that it's one thing to condone the lesser evil in such cases, and quite another for the church to promote condom use.
In the wide-ranging interview, Martini also suggested that even single women could be implanted with frozen embryos if the alternative is letting the embryos die. Church teaching holds that all procreation must take place within marriage; the Vatican also opposes many assisted fertility procedures.
"Where there is a conflict of values, it would seem to me ethically more significant to be inclined toward those solutions that allow a life to grow than to allow it to die," Martini said. "But I understand that not everyone shares this opinion."
Position on in vitro fertilization
Church teaching holds that in vitro fertilization is morally wrong because it replaces the "natural" conjugal union between husband and wife, and often results in the destruction of embryos. The church forbids the donation of eggs and sperm for such procedures and also condemns all forms of experimentation on human embryos.
Martini said Catholic couples seeking in vitro treatments might be able to get around the church's opposition. He voiced support for technology using a zygote — a fertilized egg in which the chromosomes of the egg and sperm haven't yet combined.
He said that seemed allowable because in the zygote stage — which occurs 18-24 hours after fertilization — "there are still no signs of singularly definable human life."
Martini repeated church teaching that opposes research on embryonic stem cells and also reiterated church opposition to abortion and euthanasia.
However, he acknowledged that in abortion, there were cases when the life of the mother was at risk where abortion might be considered the "lesser evil."
"In such cases, it seems that moral theology has always supported the principle of the legitimate defense and the lesser evil, even if it concerns a reality that shows the dramatic and fragility of the human condition," he said.