IN 2009, Pope Benedict XVI said that condom distribution is not helping, and may actually be worsening, the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa. In an interview for a recent book, he repeated what he has said in the past: Condoms are not the answer morally or otherwise to the scourge of AIDS.
In the interview, the Pope also remarked that the use of a condom by a prostitute with AIDS might represent a first step toward his or her moral awakening, toward a realization that the other person matters. In the context of all that the Pope has said and continues to say about AIDS and condoms, there is no basis for asserting that either the Pope or the church has changed Catholic teaching. All the Pope did was express a hope that in the hypothetical situation he described, the use of a condom might be the first stirring of a conscience.
After Pope Benedict was roundly condemned for his 2009 remarks about condom use in Africa, the Washington Post published an op-ed column, "The Pope may be right," by Edward Green of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at Harvard University. Mr. Green cited a study by two University of California researchers in 2003 that "found no evidence of condoms working as a primary HIV-prevention measure in Africa."
Mr. Green wrote that since that study, "major articles in other peer-reviewed journals such as the Lancet, Science, and BMJ have confirmed that condoms have not worked as a primary intervention in the population-wide epidemics of Africa." In a 2008 article in Science, 10 AIDS experts concluded that "consistent condom use has not reached a sufficiently high level … to produce a measurable slowing of new infections in the generalized epidemics of Sub-Saharan Africa."
Some have argued that the Catholic Church is an obstacle to consistent, widespread condom use. But research by Amin Abboud, an Australian bioethicist writing in the British Medical Journal, found that in Africa, the greater the percentage of Catholics in any country, the lower the levels of HIV.
The conclusion Mr. Abboud drew was that "if the Catholic Church is promoting a message about HIV in those countries, it seems to be working." He also offered this pointed conclusion: "A concerted campaign, also in medical journals, has been under way after the death of Pope John Paul II to attribute responsibility to him for the death of many Africans. Such accusations must always be supported by solid data. None has been presented so far. The causes of the HIV crisis in Africa need to be found elsewhere. The solutions go beyond mere latex. If anything, the holistic approach to sexuality that Catholicism advocates, based on the evidence at hand, seems to save lives."
In light of this evidence, how can the claim be made that the Catholic Church and its teachings have contributed to the spread of HIV/AIDS? And why is there such an effort to use Pope Benedict's comments in the book interview to make people think that he is changing church teaching, when he repeated that condoms are not the answer - morally or otherwise - to the scourge of AIDS?
Professor Green was onto something in his Washington Post column when he said: "The condom has become a symbol of freedom and - along with contraception - female emancipation, so those who question condom orthodoxy are accused of being against these causes."
Might the same not be said of those who champion homosexual and other forms of sexual "emancipation"? One is led to ask whether "condom orthodoxy," in the face of contrary evidence, has more to do with the sexual revolution of many people in the United States and the rest of the developed world than it has to do with the suffering people of Africa and their values, their love for children and family, and their rejection of a contraceptive mentality.
It is estimated that one in four of the 33 million AIDS patients worldwide is being cared for by the Catholic Church. That includes almost half of the total treatment efforts in Africa, where two-thirds of those afflicted with AIDS live. In Africa, the Catholic Church is tremendously active in education, medicine, and relief efforts. To the cries of those who call out for help in the face of AIDS, the church speaks and acts on the basis of moral and medical truths, not ideology and fiction.
Leonard P. Blair is bishop of the Diocese of Toledo.