Recent news that the Vatican might slightly relax its opposition to both condom education and provision as a way of preventing the transmission of HIV and AIDS has been greeted with optimism by the media as well as the international HIV and AIDS community. Of course, those of us old enough to remember the Vatican Commission on Birth Control—which was widely expected to change the church’s position on contraception in 1966—know not to get our hopes up. Then, the vast majority of commission members recommended that the Vatican approve of contraception for married couples and said there was no theological obstacle to a change. Four dissenting members went to the pope and cautioned that any change might erode the overall authority of the church and lead people to believe that other things could change. The pope followed the minority view and ruled in favor of authority over the health and needs of Catholic couples.
I would not be surprised if hard-liners in the Vatican prevailed on the question of condoms fearing that if condoms could be seen as the lesser of two evils by preventing death from AIDS, someone might claim that contraception could be seen as the lesser of two evils in preventing abortion.
It is perhaps appalling that the world community continues to be held hostage to the Vatican’s views on sexuality and reproduction, which are at the root of the current objection to a prevention strategy that includes condoms. However, that is indeed the case. If the Vatican’s view did not influence the larger, secular effort to prevent the transmission of AIDS it could be seen as the quaint and quirky view of sexuality and responsibility that it is. But the fact is that the Vatican’s objection to condoms has had a great effect on the larger community.
Of course, the greatest effect is on those who seek care in Catholic-controlled facilities. The church claims that 25% of those with AIDS get their health care from church agencies. That means a large number of them are either kept ignorant of the importance of condoms for those who are sexually active or simply not provided with the condoms they need. As AIDS treatment becomes more available and people live longer, this means more people will be infected.
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But more importantly, Vatican opposition to condoms has had a large influence on the major agencies responsible for AIDS prevention and treatment. The group includes ministries of health around the world, UNAIDS and private foundations like Gates and Clinton. The emphasis over the past decade on treatment over prevention is only partly due to an appropriate concern regarding the cost of drugs and the lack of access to them. It is also an easy way for these agencies to avoid controversy and attacks from the church.
One can only hope that the mere discussion within the church of a possible change in policy will give these agencies the backbone they need to once and for all reject the ignorant and irresponsible position of the church and stand up for the right of those at risk of transmitting or getting AIDS to have a healthy and responsible sexual life while preventing the transmission of a devastating disease.