IN THE WORLD OF SECULAR POLITICS, it would be called a trial balloon. Last week, Cardinal Carlo Martini, a Jesuit theologian and runner-up in the last papal election, told an Italian newspaper that condoms were the "lesser evil" when used to stop the transmission of AIDS.
The cardinal's comments, which elicited praise from inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church, were followed up a few days later by reports that the Vatican was taking a new look at the issue of condoms and AIDS. A pronouncement from Pope Benedict XVI agreeing with Martini would be a blessing.
The church still teaches that the use of birth control by married couples is a violation of natural law and morally wrong. According to "Humane Vitae," a controversial 1968 encyclical by Pope Paul VI, "each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life."
This teaching is honored in the breach by many Catholic couples in Western Europe and the United States, with the tacit approval of some local pastors. But it has stood as an obstacle to an endorsement by the Vatican of the use of condoms to help contain the transmission of the virus that causes AIDS. Individual cardinals have differed on the matter.
But this week, Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, the head of the Vatican office for healthcare, told Vatican Radio that "we are conducting a very profound scientific, technical and moral study" on how to deal with married couples when one is infected with HIV. Coming after Martini's comments, that statement seems to indicate that the Vatican is engaged in a genuine reassessment of the condom issue, at least where married couples are concerned. (An unmarried couple that had sexual relations would be violating church teaching whether or not they used contraceptives.)
There is a precedent in Catholic teaching for allowing the use of condoms to prevent disease. A doctrine known in moral theology as the "double effect" says that an individual may engage in an act that has both good and bad effects if the good effect compensates for the bad effect and the act itself is "morally good or at least indifferent."
The use of condoms to contain the spread of AIDS seems to fit squarely into that doctrine. If birth control is an evil (a proposition that even many Catholics question), it is certainly a lesser one than contributing to the scourge of AIDS.