Pope Okays Use of Condoms in “Some Situations”

Jodi Jacobson

In a reversal of long standing teachings, the Pope has reversed the Vatican's prohibition of condoms for HIV prevention in "some situations." Birth control remains banned.

Pope Benedict XVI stated this weekend that condom use will now be acceptable for Catholics “in certain cases,” notably “to reduce the risk of infection” with HIVReuters reports that in a series of interviews published in his native German, the 83-year-old Benedict is asked whether “the Catholic Church is not fundamentally against the use of condoms.”

“It of course does not see it as a real and moral solution,” the pope replies.

“In certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, it can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality,” said the head of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics.

Until now, the Vatican had prohibited the use of any form of safer sex technology, even for those at risk of HIV infections or other sexually transmitted diseases, claiming that abstinence was the only acceptable means of preventing infection.  It retains the ban on contraception for those practicing Catholic orthodoxy even in cases where a woman’s life might be at risk from an additional pregnancy.  Despite the ban on contraceptive use, the overwhelming majority of Catholics in the United States, and in many Catholic countries, such as Italy, Spain, and Brazil, use contraception regularly.

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The Pope’s statement allowing condom use comes a year and some months after he condemned the use of condoms even for HIV prevention in March 2009 while traveling in sub-Saharan Africa. According to coverage of that trip by The Guardian.com:

The pontiff said condoms were not the answer to the continent’s fight against HIV and Aids and could make the problem worse.

Benedict XVI made his comments as he flew to Cameroon for the first leg of a six-day trip that will also see him travelling to Angola.

The timing of his remarks outraged health agencies trying to halt the spread of HIV and Aids in sub-Saharan Africa, where an estimated 22 million people are infected.

In its coverage of the Pope’s more recent remarks, Agence-France Presse reports that:

To illustrate his apparent shift in position, Benedict offered the example of a male prostitute using a condom.

“There may be justified individual cases, for example when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be … a first bit of responsibility, to re-develop the understanding that not everything is permitted and that one may not do everything one wishes,” Benedict was quoted as saying.

“But it is not the proper way to deal with the horror of HIV infection.”

Benedict reiterated that condom use alone would not solve the problem of HIV/AIDS. “More must happen,” he said.

Catholic advocacy groups concerned with reproductive and sexual health, rights, and justice enthusiastically applauded the move.

In a statement, Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said:

We are delighted that the pope has acknowledged that condoms can help reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections including HIV. It is a marvelous victory for common sense and reason and a major step forward towards recognizing that condom use can play a vital role in reducing the future impact of the HIV pandemic.

“The pope said that condom use to prevent the transmission of HIV is ‘a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more humane sexuality,'” noted O’Brien.  “This admission is the Catholic hierarchy’s own first step in addressing the realities about sex and sexuality.

However, while this is a game-changing statement, we acknowledge that there is still a long way to go before the Vatican’s teachings on condoms meet the needs of Catholics around the world—for contraception as well as for HIV and AIDS prevention.”

O’Brien pointed to the need for the Vatican to expand both the populations covered by the new more “liberal” policy.

“While we naturally agree that condoms should be available for male sex workers, we and millions of Catholics also think they should be available to everyone at risk of contracting or transmitting HIV—women as well as men.”

Still, he said, “Those of us who have been praying and campaigning about these issues for the past two and half decades are very heartened by this move.”

While it is not clear whether this is the first in a series of gradual shifts by the Vatican on HIV prevention and perhaps even contraception, the new position on condom use will inevitably make prevention of both pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections easier. 

Condoms are a dual protection method: they can be used to prevent both pregnancy and infection. In those countries–such as the Bolivia, Kenya, Peru, and the Philippines– where the Church has had a stranglehold on policies regarding government investments in expanding access to contraceptive methods and to safer sex strategies, increased recognition by the Church of the need for condoms even in limited situations may have wider implications for access to condoms.

It also may change the politics of U.S. international and domestic funding on safer sex strategies. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, has been instrumental in undermining the inclusion of effective prevention strateiges in U.S. funded international programs, and helped write legislative guidance denying HIV-positive women access to contraception.  HIV-positive women whose only access to health care is through a Catholic charity may now find they have greater latitiude for use of condoms to avoid HIV re-infection as well as to limit, space, or avoid additional births.

In a nod to the broader implications, Catholics for Choice’s O’Brien said:

“Pope Benedict is the leader of a church that receives hundreds of millions of dollars every year for HIV and AIDS treatment and prevention. We hope that this statement is only the first step on the path to making sure that people who need condoms and education about how to use them effectively can get the services they need. It will be especially significant for the many, many people who work for Catholic aid agencies and have been secretly handing out condoms while fearing that they will lose their jobs. It is also a suitable moment to recognize that taxpayer money that goes to Catholic agencies may now be used to fund comprehensive prevention programs—something that has been a concern for some time. For example, read our special report on this issue, “Seeing Is Believing.”

“At the very least, all those who work in Catholic healthcare delivery now understand that condoms play a critical role in preventing the spread of HIV,” said O’Brien.

Education about and distribution of condoms should become the norm, not the exception. We call on governments and other donors who fund the Catholic church’s healthcare and HIV and AIDS programs to ensure that they do just that.

It is clear that were this to happen, there would be vastly greater hope for reaching oft-reiterated and never-reached goals such as achieving great reductions in maternal mortality and morbidity, and stopping the spread of HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections.

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