Condoms, CRS and Dolan

Archbishop Dolan visits Ethiopia.
Archbishop Dolan visits Ethiopia. (photo: CNS-John Stipe/CRS)

N.Y. Archbishop Dolan Vows to Stay at Catholic Relief Services, Clean Up AIDS Prevention


NEW YORK — Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan becomes archbishop of New York April 15. But he is vowing not to leave behind his job as chairman of Catholic Relief Services for his new job.

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic Church in the United States. A scandal over condoms promotion led to an important teaching moment about the Church’s stand on AIDS and condom use, he said. The agency has fully addressed the scandal.

“The genius of Catholic Relief Services is that we work with local professionals there in those countries,” Archbishop Dolan said. “Sometimes we have to trust non-Catholics, even though they’re supervised by committed Catholics. We have to be certain that they understand the Church’s teachings on morality.”

In October 2007 the agency mailed to its local church partners “A Flip Chart for Client Education,” created by the Zambian government, that contained cartoons illustrating how to use a condom and a testimonial from a condom user.

Germain Grisez, professor of Christian ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., exposed the scandalous material in an April 2008 article in The Catholic World Report and claimed that Catholic Relief Services tried to cover up its involvement in the flip chart. A December 2007 CRS position paper seemed to back up Grisez’s claim: “Any written educational materiel that contains information about condoms must not carry the CRS name or logo” (original emphasis).

“In retrospect, Professor Grisez did us a favor, and we appreciated his criticisms, because as embarrassed as I am to admit it, he was right on target,” Archbishop Dolan said. He called the flip chart “just unacceptable.”

Sean Callahan, CRS executive vice president for overseas operations, admitted March 31 that his agency did distribute the chart after being denied permission by Zambia to alter it so that it adhered to Church teaching.

“CRS gave input so our faith-based agencies would feel more comfortable with it,” Callahan said. “We do not now distribute it to any of our partners.”

In its stead, the Catholic agency has produced an educational document, “Protecting Life: Abstinence and Fidelity,” Callahan said.

“So, we have withdrawn the document,” Archbishop Dolan said, “but we and the board of trustees of CRS didn’t want to stop there; we said, ‘Let’s make sure this mistake is never repeated. And let’s make sure that our people in the field completely comprehend, understand and appreciate the Church’s teaching when it comes to chastity.’”

The New York Connection

The new teaching document was drawn up by Bishop George Thomas of Helena, Mont., in concert with John Haas of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, and submitted to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committees on pro-life activities and doctrine, Archbishop Dolan said.

It was approved with minor corrections and is now wending its way to implementation. That will entail educating field workers in Africa and elsewhere.

The glare of publicity may intensify on Catholic Relief Services now that Archbishop Dolan is succeeding Cardinal Edward Egan as archbishop of New York. He will remain chairman of Catholic Relief Services.

“For a minute or two, I thought: ‘Oh, oh, will I be able to?’  But this work is just so essential, and I’m being a bit selfish here: It’s good for me. I enjoy the work, and it keeps me with a Catholic vision of things, as far as the needs of the Church Universal. I’m just kind of hoping that the heightened visibility that will come my way as the archbishop of New York will allow me to trumpet the great work of CRS even more effectively,” he said.

Historically, the archbishop continued, Catholic Relief Services got its start in New York, and its offices used to be under the umbrella of the Archdiocese of New York. The early directors of the agency all worked out of New York.

“There’s kind of a classical connection there, so I do look forward to keeping the chairmanship,” Archbishop Dolan said.

Church Teaching on Condoms

The Church’s teaching on chastity in regards to AIDS and condoms also received a greater spotlight recently with Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic journey to Africa.

“AIDS is a tragedy that cannot be overcome with money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which can even increase the problem,” the Pope told reporters on his flight to Africa March 17.

Many international agencies, foreign governments, news analysts and HIV/AIDS advocates joined in criticizing the Pope’s remarks, going so far as to call them “irresponsible.” More than 22 million people living in sub-Saharan Africa are infected with HIV (the human immunodeficiency virus), the precursor to AIDS, and condoms are widely distributed by non-governmental organizations trying to staunch the flow of the insidious disease.

But a well-known expert in AIDS, who is also an expert on contraception, agrees with Benedict.

“He’s right,” said Edward Green, director of Harvard University’s AIDS Prevention Research Project. “The latest evidence supports the Pope’s stance.”

Green, a medical anthropologist who has been investigating AIDS since the syndrome was discovered in the 1980s and who has written five books and hundreds of articles for professional journals on the subject, said that the data back him up.

“We already knew in the 1970s that condoms were among the least effective contraceptives, and we now have studies that show an association between condom use and higher infection rates” of HIV, Green said from his office at the Harvard School of Public Health. “So, when the Pope said that the answer really lies in monogamy and marital faithfulness, that’s exactly what we found empirically.”

The researcher cites what he calls “risk compensation,” the attitude that if one is protected by a sperm barrier then one can be promiscuous with impunity.

Despite his credentials and the breadth and depth of his team’s research, however, most people seem to disagree with Green, who is not a Catholic.

But not Catholic Relief Services. Callahan said that the position of Catholic Relief Services in respect to condom use “is entirely consistent with His Holiness’ position.” When asked if the common opinion about condom use assisting in AIDS prevention made the work of CRS more difficult in places like Africa, Callahan said the problem is not in the field.

“Sometimes the difficulty comes in with the publicity back here in the United States. It’s a complicated issue on how to address the whole AIDS pandemic, and the fact that people use sound bites is not helpful to the cause,” the CRS vice president said.

Internet critics complained that a 28-page brochure called 2008 CRS Highlights: The Year in Review presents wonderful humanitarian work but never uses any of these words: Gospel, Jesus, Christ, baptism or God.

Archbishop Dolan is aware of those kinds of complaints. He said the new CRS educational document, “Protecting Life,” was devised as a catechetical tool for workers as well as clients.

Catholic Relief Services “is representing the Church,” he said, “and we are concerned not only with functional issues, but we are concerned about their souls; we’re concerned about their hearts; we’re concerned about their eternal salvation. We represent Jesus Christ and his Church.”

Paul Barra writes from
Reidville, South Carolina.