by Aldona Martinka

May 31, 2011 – UPDATE:

Unfortunately, this weekend’s symposium at the Vatican did not fulfill hopes that the Catholic Church might adopt a more comprehensive approach to HIV prevention. In fact, the Church’s long-held, misguided beliefs that condoms actually hurt HIV prevention continue to be supported. Dr. Sidibe quoted the Pope’s book, but the response was tired and dimissive, rather than cooperative. Citing AIDS statistics from African nations, speakers noted that governments encouraging abstinence rather than handing out condoms had higher success rates in stemming the tide.

The Catholic Church continues its commitment to humanitarian efforts, including HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. Using Church-approved methods, faith-based organizations will continue to provide care to countless victims of the epidemic, but without a commitment from the Vatican to accept and work with scientific and public health advancements, the global fight against AIDS will never be unified. If there is a constant battle behind the scenes between prevention methods with religious approval like abstinence, and methods not approved by the religious leaders like condoms, then mixed messages and funding battles will serve as yet another obstacle to eradication.

May 27, 2011 – Traditional Catholic doctrine forbids the use of artificial forms of birth control, including the condom. But what if the condom is being used as a way to prevent infection rather than a birth control method?

Last November, Pope Benedict XVI made waves in Catholic and public health communities when he stated that when used “in the intention of reducing the risk of infection,” condoms could actually represent a step in the right moral direction. Since then his comments have been analyzed and re-analyzed, defended and dismissed, by in support of every possible viewpoint on condom use. This leaves many confused over whether condoms are still considered to contradict the teachings of the church, and whether this has opened the door for a less strict policy from the Vatican and other religious leaders in favor of global health.

Pope Benedict XVI, however, also stated a little over a week ago that the fight against AIDS “cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems.” This position is maintained by many leaders across the world in the church and religious organizations, even to the point of completely denying science in favor of supporting the official stance, to the detriment of local and global public health goals in the fight against the epidemic.

Changes in religious leaders’ views on condom use have potentially far-reaching effects: from sex education, to the work of faith-based organizations in AIDS relief (which get billions of dollars in federal aid each year), to a shift in public health practices in hard-hit conservative countries. So while the Vatican’s official stance is still that condoms are immoral, the pope’s comment that they might be a step in a moral direction in some cases unprecedented and has implications that may someday alter what has until now been a battle pitting conservative religious doctrine against progressive attempts to change the way the AIDS epidemic is faced.

Today and tomorrow the Vatican is hosting a symposium on preventing HIV and caring for those affected by the virus. Notably, this symposium includes the executive director of UNAIDS, Dr. Michel Sidibe, and other know advocates for condom distribution as part of a prevention plan. Perhaps this symposium, following on the heels of the new UN strategy for the upcoming years, will represent another step in the right direction of a more united fight against AIDS.

[If an item is not written by an IRMA member, it should not be construed that IRMA has taken a position on the article’s content, whether in support or in opposition.]