Pope skirts condoms issue in World AIDS Day statement

November 30, 2007

Pope Benedict XVI greets the crowd during his weekly general audience, 28 Nov. 2007When Pope Benedict expressed his closeness to victims of AIDS in advance of World AIDS Day on December 1, one thing was conspicuously absent from his comments — either a specific mention or a reference to the use of condoms.

The Pope, speaking at his weekly general audience on Wednesday, called for increased efforts to stop the spread of AIDS and said victims of the disease should not be treated with disdain. He criticised international agencies he said were spreading abortion. The C-word was not present in either in letter or spirit in his two-paragraph comments in Italian.

When his predecessor John Paul spoke of AIDS, whether he was speaking in the Vatican or during his trips abroad, he often mentioned, either directly or indirectly, that condoms were not the answer.

AIDS and HIV prevention campaign in Lima, 30 Nov. 2007The Catholic Church opposes the use of condoms in general because they block the possible transmission of life and teaches that fidelity within heterosexual marriage, chastity and abstinence are the best way to stop the spread of AIDS. It says promoting condoms fosters immoral and hedonistic behaviour that will only contribute to its spread. It teaches that homosexual acts are immoral in the first place.

In fact, the Catholic Church’s position on the use of condoms to stop the spread of AIDS has never been made totally clear or definitively pronounced.

Perhaps by not mentioning condoms, Pope Benedict has decided to take a more subtle approach to the problem.

In recent years, several top Church officials have called for a change in Vatican policy on condoms to allow their use by married couples where one partner is affected by HIV or AIDS. But the Vatican has so far been loath to issue any document that could be interpreted as a green light for the use of condoms to stop the spread of AIDS, fearing it would endorse promiscuity.

Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, 16 April 2006Little has been heard about a possible Vatican document recently. In November, 2006, Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, head of the Vatican’s Council for Health Pastoral Care, told reporters a study commissioned by the Pope had effectively passed its first hurdle.

“This is something that worries the Pope a lot,” Barragan said of AIDS at the time. The study, which Barragan at the time said was carried out from both a scientific and moral point of view, had been passed on to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and would eventually be passed up the Pope for his use as he saw fit in a document of his own or a pronouncement. It is not clear at what stage the document is now but perhaps, judging by the Benedict’s words, he has decided not to confront the issue the way his predecessor did — at least for now.

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It is not surprising that the Detroit Free Press (Dec. 1) castigated religious leaders for being largely silent regarding the AIDS pandemic. True, a few Catholic bishops have challenged the pope to alter the Vatican’s policy on condoms to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in Latin American, Africa, and around the world. But their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. UNAIDS has repeatedly challenged the church’s do-nothing-abstinence policy which fails to curb the spread of AIDS. Will World Aids Day prick the pope’s conscience enough to bring some change?

A considerable number of bishops and cardinals have registered their displeasure with Benedict XVI’s speech in June 2005 prohibiting Catholics from using condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. AIDS activists in Brazil recently called the pope’s teaching criminal. The spread of AIDS “should be tackled through fidelity and abstinence and not by condoms,” the pope has said. Numerous bishops and cardinals have said this is not the Catholic way.

• Six months before the pope’s speech, Cardinal Georges
Cottier, the theologian for the papal household, called for a change in
Vatican policy regarding AIDS prevention.
• In the Fall of 2005 Bishop Kevin Dowling of South Africa stated
that the Vatican ban on the use of condoms to prevent AIDS was morally
• Cardinals Danneels and Martini joined the chorus of dissent in
April, 2006. They asked for a change in the Pope’s policy banning the
use of condoms to fight the spread of AIDS. Ironically, the man who
became pope, Joseph Ratzinger, labored in the Vatican for 24 years
defending Catholic orthodoxy and is now being asked: are you
on the right track? Are you really Catholic? The challenge was
formidable. The pope bristled and blinked. He then ordered a
comprehensive review of Catholic teaching on condom use to prevent AIDS.
Over 500 days have passed and we have no report on the pope’s study. Officials at the highest level of the church hierarchy are wondering if the pope is teaching correct Catholic principles. Some of these men feel there is a better and more enlightened Catholic perspective. Most of the arguments against the pope’s stand rest on solid moral and ethical grounds. But the financial costs of this Vatican intransigence is in the millions. Here is why the pope should make a change.

First, a Catholic should respond to human suffering. Time and again we
have heard high ranking bishops say Christians must follow the
commandment: “Thou shalt not kill”(Deut 5:17). Catholics must be
concerned with human life! This is precisely the meaning of Catholic orthodox doctrine: what is believed always, everywhere, and by all. AIDS has orphaned millions in Latin America and Africa. Thus papal critics say Catholics should be allowed—encouraged—to use condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. It also makes financial sense. Prevention saves lives and money.

Second, Catholics should take action when it is clear they can make a
difference. With 150 million Catholics in Africa and 120 million in
Brazil the pope must help those who are at high risk of contracting AIDS. According to the latest statistics issued on World AIDS day, more than 6,800 people are infected each day by this incurable but preventable disease. Since the Vatican ordered a review of its AIDS prevention policy, about 3,700,000 new cases of HIV/AIDS have emerged on the planet. Catholic action in favor of the poor and suffering could have saved thousands of lives and millions in health care dollars. Action 5 years ago could have avoided untold millions of deaths. There are 400,000 priests worldwide who could have been engaged in teaching a truly Catholic approach to AIDS prevention. Instead, Peach Corps workers have reported to me that priests in Tanzania tell parishioners not to use condoms to fight the spread of AIDS. Will the pope be a Catholic to these suffering masses and respond positively to his brother Catholic bishops? While in Brazil six months ago the pope offered no new insights about AIDS prevention.

Third, Catholics seek enlightened teachers. Young people today are
looking for moral leadership. With church attendance and religious
affiliation at all time lows for 18 to 30-year-olds in the USA, Catholic
leaders must not throw another generation of believers under the bus and drive off into the conservative sunset. The pope and his colleagues may say mass and pray for world peace while visiting the U.S. next April 2008. But now is the time for religion not only to pray their prayers. True holiness calls for meaningful action that values and protects human life as well as precious health care dollars in poor countries. Will the pope subscribe to such uniquely Catholic/Christian principles? Many hope so.

R. John Kinkel, Ph.D. is author of the book ‘Chaos in the Catholic Church.’ johnkinkel@msn.com

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