Since news spread that Pope Benedict XVI had "changed" his stance on the use of condoms as a method of HIV prevention, the AIDS community, catholic church and world's media have all tried to make sense of what was said.
To clarify, Pope Benedict was quoted in Peter Seewald's book Light of the World: the Pope, the church and signs of the times as saying that condoms "in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality" and 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, 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." In sum, condoms could be a step towards more moral sexuality in exceptional circumstances but this is not the best way to address the issue of HIV.
This may not seem like a groundbreaking assertion for condom use. In many ways it is a form of confusing fence-sitting that can be claimed as a victory by both the Catholic Church and the AIDS community.
However, it does matter in three important ways.
First, it matters for the AIDS community because any sustainable form of HIV prevention must integrate condoms, not only abstinence and being faithful to one's partner. In practice it matters for the 25% of people living with HIV/AIDS that are Catholic who not only have to reconcile their faith with their positive status but risk transmitting the virus and being the subject of stigma.
Catholic-based community groups working in countries with high HIV prevalence will have more flexibility in not promoting, but not ignoring the role of condoms in combating AIDS. Many community groups are faithful to the promotion of abstinence and being faithful but say they would like to educate about condom use as a last resort without fear of the Church.
The sticking point, however, is that second, it also matters for the Catholic Church.
To condone condom use could be seen as an acceptance of sexual activity for means other than reproduction and expressions of love within marriage. It is a step towards what the Pope himself calls the "banalization of sexuality." This is why the Vatican was quick to distance itself from Pope Benedict's comments. Hence, those reacting to the Pope's comments should not get carried away or get ahead of themselves, any over-assertion of the Pope's comments or pressure for wider acceptance of condoms may prompt outcry within the Catholic church and a likely reversal in the Pope's stance.
Third, it matters because it represents a small but significant change. On a visit to Cameroon in 2009 the Pope said condoms would not overcome the problem of HIV/AIDS, but could increase the problem. He is now, albeit reluctantly, accepting that they can have a role.
When the Pope speaks, people listen. The growing number of Catholics in countries with high HIV prevalence suggests any efforts to address AIDS will go awry without involving the Pope. This small change is a huge step towards breaking stigma, misunderstanding and plain conspiracy theories surrounding condom use.
What the Pope's words will mean for combating AIDS in the long term remains to be seen. However, this slight change poses an opportunity for those critical of the Pope and the Catholic Church to come together to find the best way forward to tackle HIV/AIDS. This can be achieved in a simple way: the Pope and the Catholic Church do not have to come out in favour of condom use, it would be insulting to the Catholic faith to think this possible; but they could and should stop condemning them.
Condemnation and the suggestion that condoms increase the problem distort the debate. As do particular claims to evidence-based experience that goes against a broad range of public health research. If the church does not have anything to say in support of condoms, it should just say nothing at all.
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