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Pope Benedict XVI Says Condoms a Lesser Evil When Preventing HIV

For the first time, the leader of the Catholic Church has indicated that condoms may be a moral solution to HIV prevention in some circumstances. Comments made by Pope Benedict XVI in an interview with journalist Peter Seewald suggested that while condoms were not the solution to the crisis of AIDS, in certain cases the use of contraception could be a lesser evil than infecting an individual with HIV.[1] The English translation of the comments recently published in Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and The Signs Of The Times stated, “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, 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.”[2]
The publication of the pope’s comments in L’Osservatore Romano prompted renewed speculation on the Catholic Church’s artificial contraceptive policy. Commentators remarked on gender, suggesting that the use of the term “male prostitute” indicated men having sex with men, so the use of condoms would not interfere with procreation and was consistent with official church policy on contraceptives. However, a few days later, Vatican spokesperson Rev. Federico Lombardi clarified that there was no significance to the choice of gender in the Pope’s statement. “This is if you’re a man, a woman, or a transsexual. . . The point is it’s a first step of taking responsibility, of avoiding passing a grave risk onto another,” Lombardi announced.[3]
Despite critics pointing out the statement as a personal opinion of the pope rather than an official message to his followers, Lombardi indicated that the pope’s message was made with the intent of being heard. Official or not, the opinion and words of the pope hold much significance for many of his followers. The clarification indicates a significant change for the Roman Catholic Church, which has previously been absolute on the ban against artificial contraceptives. While the pope reaffirmed Catholic teaching on contraceptives, he indicated a gradient of morality in regard to the use of contraceptives that had previously not existed. Perhaps most important, the statement shows clear acceptance that condoms can prevent the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.[4] In contrast, only a year ago Pope Benedict XVI told reporters that distributing condoms would only increase the problem of AIDS in Africa.[5]
Even before the pope’s comments were public, some in the Catholic Church understood the importance of providing people with the messages they needed to protect themselves from HIV. For many years, South African Bishop Kevin Dowling has been a leading church advocate for condom use in the prevention of HIV.[6] More recently, the Catholic Church of the Swiss city of Lucerne drew controversy when it distributed condoms bearing the message, “Forgetfulness is contagious. Protect your neighbor as you would yourself.” The customized condom giveaway occurred in conjunction with a traveling AIDS in Africa exhibit which stopped outside the Lucerne railway station between October 25and 27.[7] By giving away condoms in a stand by the truck, the Catholic Church of Lucerne noted that AIDS was also a local problem. The message of the condoms, parish director Alois Metz said, would help to “overcome the dangers of apathy” of Swiss youth.[8]
The dispute over contraception in the Roman Catholic Church is by no means a new controversy. Dissent within the practicing Catholic community on the artificial contraceptive ban is well documented. A 2005 poll conducted by the Life Cycle Institute and the National Catholic Reporter found that 75 percent of Catholics believe one can still be a good Catholic without obeying church teachings on artificial contraception. Furthermore, 97 percent of sexually active Catholic women above the age of 18 have used a church-prohibited form of contraceptive—the same rate as women in the general population. Lesser known, but just as significant, are the conflicts within the church itself. Differing opinions are even at the root of the document that enforces the contraceptive ban, the Humanae Vitae. Written by Pope Paul VI in 1968, the encyclical goes against the pope’s own commission on birth control, in which the majority opined that birth control was not intrinsically evil and that Catholic couples should be allowed to decide for themselves what contraceptive methods should be employed.[9] Still, even with so many different opinions within the church hierarchy, it has shown no possibility of modifying its most recent position until now. This has been the first time a message of ambiguity on the contraceptive issue has come from so high up.
“We are delighted that the pope has acknowledged that condoms can help reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections including HIV,” comments Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice in a press release. “It is a marvelous victory for common sense and reason and a major step forward toward recognizing that condom use can play a vital role in reducing the future impact of the HIV pandemic . . . this admission is the Catholic hierarchy’s own first step in addressing the realities about sex and sexuality.”[10]

[1] Victor L. Simpson and Nicole Winfield, “Vatican: Condom Use Less Evil than Spreading HIV,” Associated Press, 23 November 2010, accessed 28 November 2010, <>.

[2] “The Pope’s Words on Condoms” (excerpt from Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times), New York Times, 22 November 2010, access 28 November 2010, <>.

[3] Simpson and Winfield, “Vatican: Condom Use Less Evil than Spreading HIV.”

[4] Rachel Donadio and Laurie Goodstein, “After Condom Remarks, Vatican Confirms Shift,” New York Times, 23 November 2010, accessed 28 November 2010, <>.

[5] Simpson and Winfield, “Vatican: Condom Use Less Evil than Spreading HIV.”

[6] Nora Boustany, “AIDS Crisis Shapes Bishop’s Stance,” Washington Post, 4 April 2006, accessed 30 November 2010, <>.

[7] Susan Vogel-Misicka, “Catholic Condom Campaign Sparks Controversy,” swissinfo, 28 October 2010, accessed 15 November 2010, <>.

[8] Katholische Kirche Luzern, Schütze deinen Nächsten wie Dich selbst, Press release, 21 October 2010, accessed 15 November 2010, <>.

[9] Catholics for Choice, Truth and Consequence: A Look behind the Vatican’s Ban on Contraception, 2008, accessed 15 November 2010, <>.

[10] “Pope’s Statement on Condoms is a Victory for Common Sense and Reason,” Catholics for Choice, Press release, 21 November 2010, accessed 23 November 2010, <>.