Today marks the start of a Vatican conference on HIV and AIDS. Organized by the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, the conference, entitled “Toward an Equitable and Human Health Care,” is bringing together experts for a two-day symposium on preventing HIV and caring for those who are living with the virus. Some HIV-prevention advocates are hoping that the Vatican will use this opportunity to build on the pope’s recent comments regarding condoms. Catholics for Choice and its Condoms4Life campaign will greet participants with an ad in Saturday’s Corriere della Sera, Rome’s prominent daily newspaper. The ad reads, in part:
We believe in God.
We believe that sex is sacred.
We believe in caring for each other.
We believe in using condoms.
We thank Pope Benedict for acknowledging that condoms save lives.
The ad refers to comments that Pope Benedict XVI made in November 2010 during an interview with a German author for the book Light of the World. In the interview, Benedict said condoms were not “a real or moral solution” to the AIDS epidemic, which “can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.” But he added 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.”
AIDS activists hailed the comments as a possible start of the Vatican loosening its prohibition of condoms as part of HIV-prevention efforts. In a statement at the time, Michel Sidibé, the executive director of UNAIDS said: “This move recognizes that responsible sexual behavior and the use of condoms have important roles in HIV prevention.” Some, however, felt the pope’s words were misconstrued and worried that they would be inaccurately interpreted as an official change to church policy regarding condoms for disease prevention and birth control. The Vatican quickly backed away from the comments and issued numerous clarifications including one in December 2010 that read, in part: “The idea that anyone could deduce from the words of Benedict XVI that it is somehow legitimate, in certain situations, to use condoms to avoid an unwanted pregnancy is completely arbitrary and is in no way justified either by his words or in his thought.”
Despite these clarifications, AIDS advocates feel that the pope’s comments opened the possibility of a new dialogue and are urging the attendees at this weekend’s conference to take advantage of the opportunity. Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, told conference attendees in a statement: “Your mission has clearly been expanded since the pope’s recent acknowledgement that condoms do help save lives….” He went on to say that since the pope’s comments “conservatives within the church have worked to try and muddy this clarity,” and warn Catholic health workers to resist these efforts to “hijack progress.”
O’Brien concluded: “It is vital for attendees to illuminate this weekend’s conference with a progressive vision of Catholic health care. The needs of people living with HIV and AIDS, their families and their communities will never come second in any ‘equitable and human’ solution.”