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The Pope, condoms and AIDS

  • 26 March 2009
Pope Benedict's remarks about the use of condoms to address AIDS in Africa last week caused predictable controversy. They should be set in two different contexts: the West and Africa.

When AIDS first spread in the West it affected particularly the homosexual community. The response was tightly focused. It aimed to win the trust of the gay community, refrained from making any judgments about lifestyle and sexual orientation, educated people about the nature and the spread of the disease, and encouraged them to use condoms in all casual sexual encounters.

Together with the development of retroviral drugs, this strategy has been markedly effective in reducing the incidence and mortality from AIDS.

Within the Catholic Church there was little initial institutional response to AIDS. But like other churches, it has had to deal with the consequences of fear of AIDS. This intensified antipathy to and discrimination against homosexuals. It also led many Catholics and others to assert that discrimination would not be overcome until the churches recognised the equivalence of gay and heterosexual relationships. The same argument was made for the legalisation of gay marriage.

In the face of these pressures Catholic Church leaders insisted that the institution of faithful heterosexual marriage was central to health of society, and that it should be uniquely privileged. They also defended the Catholic understanding of sexuality and the transmission of life in strong and general terms. They believed that discussion of borderline cases, such as the use of condoms where the life of one partner was at stake, was used by critics to undermine Catholic teaching as a whole.

So within the Catholic Church the question of AIDS was linked to homosexuality. The plight of those exposed to AIDS and living with the disease was set within a broader context where the church's teaching on sexuality was felt to be under threat.

The African context was different. Because AIDS there was transmitted mainly through heterosexual intercourse, it affected many women and children. Widows left without income often left their villages, and were faced with the choice of turning to prostitution or of their own and their children's deaths. Without condoms, they would die either way.

In contrast to the Western world, religious congregations and parishes were extensively involved from the beginning in caring for infected and rejected women and children. The local Catholic sisters, priests and many bishops generally recognised the dilemma and some have