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.

Join the Conversation

  • nazza

    I’d say it’s a good first step, that is, if I knew further steps were forthcoming.

  • Franzia Kafka

    The whole shit is just baffling. So it’s OK for somebody engaged in a by-church-standards morally heinous activity, like prostitution, to use a condom, but not somebody just having sex with their spouse in a Church-sanctified relationship like a marriage? Ostensibly the premise of this is to uphold the Church’s formulation of “the natural” – not allowing any “artificial” technology like birth control to interrupt a “natural,” God-given process like conception – so that makes condom use OK in an “unnatural” context like gay sex with a prostitute. It’s just absurd and is more blatant hypocrisy at its best. The Church accepts, allows, and sometimes encourages all kinds of articificial intervention in conception and birth, from in-vitro fertilization to fertility-drug treatment and medical intervention to save preemies (gasp – how “unnatural” all!). Their reasons for rejecting birth control are total bullshit based on contrived standards that they change according to their whim, as the Pope demonstrates. They’ll never be able to make up for their contributions to massive numbers of AIDS deaths in developing countries until they start handing out and encouraging condom use.

    • Domalais

      The whole shit is just baffling.

      Not at all. And it has nothing to do with whim.

      Religion is a business, and a profitable one at that. Like any other business, it’s important to ensure a steady flow of business of current customers, and a supply of future customers. AIDS endangers both things.

      The solution for the Catholic Church is to promote condom use only when it’s not preventing new Catholics from being created. Sex with a prostitute? Unlikely to produce a good, God-fearing, church-going child, so condom OK. Sex with your church-married spouse? Condom is a terrible sin, because you might prevent the creation of a future Catholic.

      The same is true for everything you mentioned about IVF, medical intervention, etc. So long as it’s creating new customers or extending their tithe-giving lifespans, it’s perfectly natural and not at all a sin.

  • Samantha

    I kind of wonder how many couples are going to suddenly be using condoms – to, y’know, “prevent the possibility of HIV/AIDS”. I mean, every Catholic I know has been “interpreting” church law for as long as they can remember – and for some of them, its a stretch. But hey, whatever makes them feel less guilty, yeah?

  • Conrad Meyer

    Even this “step” just shows how bigoted the pope is — condoms are only appropriate for male prostitutes? Wow.

  • Aishlin Cortell

    I’ve seen several people pointing out that the Pope’s comments conveniently imply that it’s immoral for a man to spread disease to another man, but not for a man to spread disease to a woman.

  • Tate

    The Pope’s comment on condoms should not be seen as a reversal on condom use, even to prevent the spread of AIDS. When his statement is read in context, as well as in light of Catholic teaching on the formation of one’s conscience, you can start to see that he was making a nuanced point. Why else would he start off with an act that the Catholic Church holds to be very wrong – it would be like the pope telling a bank robber that if you are going to rob a bank, at least don’t use a loaded gun, to prevent loss of life, even though robbing a bank is wrong.

    • brianna-g

      Yet it is one that is both important and widely misunderstood.

      A friend who attended Catholic school told me what the priest teaching sex ed told the class: that condom use is a sin, but it is a lesser sin than extramarital sex, and in that context– and only that context– condom use is appropriate. In other words, the priest argued that if you are already having sex outside of a monogamous marriage, your soul cannot possibly be damaged more by condom use but it COULD be damaged more by hurting your partner through transmitting an STD, or by creating a child out of wedlock whom you might be ill-prepared to care for. He thus argued that the condom prohibition applied only to married couples who had been virginal or at least clean at the time of marriage. Which is a distinction that would make a big difference among many people who have extramarital sex unprotected.

      However, it does not address the risk of a married, chaste person contracting HIV through blood transfusion, maternal transmission, or other exposure and transmitting it to their spouse. While these means of contracting HIV are pretty rare in the developed world they are quite common in Africa, where screening is insufficient. So the pope’s stance– that condoms are okay if you are already sinning– is still just a first step, but a valuable one.

      • Tate

        When I read the Pope’s comment in context and light of Catholic teaching, I am not seeing that he is saying that condom’s are ok if you are already sinning. He is talking about a moral scale, and taking the first step starting with acknowledging a responsibility, on a journey, the conclusion of which is to reach a Catholic morality of sexuality.
        I quote from the interview “… this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.”

  • deafbrowntrash

    It makes me laugh that people are actually listening to the Pope for sex advice. I’d listen to a porn star anytime for her/his advice on HIV prevention, safe sex anytime, over the f–king Pope.