In the News 2010
Financial Times

Pope’s stance on condoms welcomed


Aids activists welcomed the pope’s apparent softening of the Vatican’s opposition to the use of condoms but sex workers said his concession, directed at infected prostitutes, demonstrated both his prejudice and stark removal from reality.

In a book-long interview entitled Light of the World to be published on Tuesday, the 83-year-old German pontiff suggests that using condoms could be justified in some cases on moral grounds to prevent infecting others with the virus causing Aids, citing the example of a “male prostitute”.

Pressed by Peter Seewald, a German Catholic journalist, whether he meant that the Church was not opposed in principle to the use of condoms, Pope Benedict replied: “She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”

While the Vatican’s ban on artificial birth control was set out in a 1968 encyclical, it has not formally documented its position on condoms as a means to combat Aids. The pope caused an international uproar last year by claiming on a visit to Africa that condoms “increase the problem” of Aids.

“This is a significant and positive step forward taken by the Vatican,” Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAids, said. “This move recognises that responsible sexual behaviour and the use of condoms have important roles in HIV prevention. This will help accelerate the HIV prevention revolution.”

Jon O’Brien, head of Catholics for Choice, a US group, commented: “It is a marvellous victory for common sense and reason, a major step forward towards recognising that condom use can play a vital role in reducing the future impact of the HIV pandemic.”

Mr O’Brien said the pope’s words were 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”.

But some activists, including dissident Catholics, were dismayed that the pope only specifically cited the narrow example of a male prostitute – although the Vatican’s own newspaper fuelled confusion by translating his words in Italian as a female prostitute.

“Thirty years of Vatican prevarication and refusal to admit the gravity of the HIV pandemic – which has already claimed the lives of 25m people and threatens not only the 33m currently affected but their partners and offspring – cannot be wiped away by a narrow exception constructed by a papacy under fire,” commented Mark Harrington of Treatment Action Group.

The pope’s shift was also interpreted by some Vatican observers as a communications ploy to soften his image as an out-of-touch fundamentalist whose papacy has been tarnished by revelations of hundreds of cases of child abuse committed by priests, sometimes protected by their bishops.

Sex workers were unimpressed by the pope’s new insight. “What the pope said is not connected to reality,” said one 23-year-old male prostitute in Rome who asked not to reveal his name. “No one cares about him. Maybe it is interesting from the theological point of view but in practical terms it makes no difference.”

A representative of the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe said his remarks were a “damn sight better than saying condoms are of no use, but still pins the blame for Aids on sex workers who face discrimination and stigmatisation”. She also questioned whether the pope was really directing Catholic social workers to do anything differently.

Catholic aid organisations account for some 25 per cent of Aids programmes in sub-Saharan Africa, providing education, treatment and working against the stigma attached to the disease.

This article originally appeared in the Financial Times.

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