Every year on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day raises awareness about the global spread of HIV infection and AIDS, with statesmen, celebrities and religious leaders announcing new initiatives and releasing statements of support for AIDS patients, doctors and researchers.
In 2010, however, Pope Benedict XVI took much of the spotlight thanks to comments to a German journalist in which Benedict suggested that condoms could be justified in some cases to prevent the spread of AIDS. While the pope’s comments did not affect the church’s teaching against artificial contraception, this apparent opening to condom use in battling AIDS was important as it confirmed an approach that Catholic health workers had been using for years.
In the interview, in a book called Light of the World, Benedict said that using condoms represents an assumption of moral responsibility “in the intention of reducing the risk of infection.”
This nuance was hailed as a step in the right direction by critics, who have felt that the pontiff could have done more to slow the spread of HIV. Several articles in the Lancet, a prominent medical journal, criticized the effect of conservative religious beliefs on those who rely on outside health care in the developing world. Although the Catholic Church is the biggest private provider of AIDS care in the world, even Catholic AIDS workers felt that more could be done in terms of prevention if the church moved beyond strict reliance on teaching abstinence to allowing some condom use.
Patients and AIDS workers in Africa took a particular interest in the pope’s carefully worded attitude toward condom use. The continent is home to more than 20 million people infected with HIV, which is more cases than the rest of the world combined. In terms of children alone, an estimated 1.8 million in Africa are living with HIV, and an estimated 14.1 million have lost one or both parents to AIDS. In 2008, 1.4 million Africans died from AIDS — a shocking statistic that has many AIDS workers convinced prevention is morally advisable.
Why it matters
The Catholic Church took a position of global leadership in terms of the care of HIV-infected people, but not everyone within the church agreed on the the role of prevention through condoms. Statements by the pope about condoms could signal a movement toward a more unified and effective policy.
The New York Times reported on the pope’s recent statements on Nov. 21, 2010.
This Reuters article says the pope’s words bolstered the AIDS fight.
Time Magazine features an article about Catholic reaction to the pope’s statement.