The Pope’s recent gesture is not an about face on HIV prevention

This weekend, the Pope has drawn wide praise after comments he made in the recently released, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times, that support condoms in some circumstances. But I agree with the Christian Science Monitor’s assertion; this is evolution, not revolution.

Let us first look at the context of both comments.

In March 2009, the Pope was on a plane ride to Yaounde, Cameroon during his first visit to Africa as Pope when he said, ”You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms,” the pope continued ”On the contrary, it increases the problem.” While he later followed up by saying that a moral attitude toward sex would help fight the disease, he didn’t specify what this meant as he toured throughout Sub Saharan Africa which is home to an estimated 22 million infections, of which women account for 12 million of these cases. This comment was especially disheartening considering that getting men to comply with wearing a condom is a struggle for women in this context.

Now this week’s book release features several in-depth interviews conducted by a German reporter. The section that has caused the media hullabaloo is very limited. At best, the Pope simply reinforces his Cameroon bound statements with a caveat:

Benedict said condoms were not “a real or moral solution” to the AIDS epidemic, adding, “that can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.” But he also said that “there may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.”

In a country where Catholics are the largest religious denomination in the US and where roughly three-fourths of HIV/AIDS cases in the United States are among men, (the majority of whom are gay and bisexual men)  it’s understandable that Western outlets are enthusiastic about this seemingly small, but important step made by the Pope.

But the Pope’s comments regarding a hypothetical sexual interaction with a male sex worker don’t undo the remarks he previously made last year about HIV and Africa.

This hypothetical situation concocted by the Pope does not offer any guidance to gay and bisexual men who do not have sex with sex workers. It does not address what strategies that should be undertaken by African American women, who are 19 times more likely than their white counterparts to contract HIV. The Pope’s inability to address prevention for these vulnerable communities is disheartening. And while today will go down for many as one step forward, we still have a long way to go before the Catholic Church can be a full partner in preventing the spread of HIV.

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