VATICAN CITY — An article being passed around the Vatican this week appeared in The Washington Post under the headline “The Pope May Be Right.” It offered some qualified support for Pope Benedict XVI’s recent statement that distribution of condoms was not the answer to AIDS.
Written by Edward C. Green, a senior research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, it argues that for various reasons, condom promotion has not worked very well as an anti-AIDS strategy among the general African population.
In theory, condom promotions ought to work everywhere. And intuitively, some condom use ought to be better than no use. But that’s not what the research in Africa shows.
One reason is “risk compensation.” That is, when people think they’re made safe by using condoms at least some of the time, they actually engage in riskier sex.
Another factor is that people seldom use condoms in steady relationships because doing so would imply a lack of trust. (And if condom use rates go up, it’s possible we are seeing an increase of casual or commercial sex.) However, it’s those ongoing relationships that drive Africa’s worst epidemics.
Vatican officials were also talking quietly about a statement by a Portuguese bishop defending condom use in the case of a married couple where one spouse has the AIDS-causing HIV virus. In fact, said Bishop Ilidio Pinto Leandro of Viseu, someone infected with the virus who cannot avoid having sexual relations is morally obliged to avoid passing on the disease by using a condom. This argument has been advanced by some theologians and bishops in the past, and has been rejected by others.
It’s worth noting that the pope, in his remarks on his plane to Africa March 17, did not address the moral issues raised by condom use in these kinds of individual cases.
Finally, for the record, I’m posting here what the pope actually said in response to the question on condoms and AIDS. I do so after continuing to read mistaken versions of his remarks being circulated by commentators who weren’t on the plane, and who are relying on erroneous versions posted on some Vatican Web pages. Unfortunately, these “transcripts” have tweaked the pope’s words and introduced phrases and concepts (like Africans needing to assume personal responsibility) that simply weren’t there.
A video/audio file of the question and answer is here. The reporter asked the pope to respond to those who consider the church’s position on AIDS unrealistic and ineffective.
The Italian text of the pope’s response:
Io direi il contrario. Penso che la realtà più efficiente, più presente, più forte della lotta contro l’AIDS è proprio la Chiesa Cattolica con i suoi movimenti, con le sue diverse realtà. Penso alla Communità di Sant’Egidio, che fa tanto visibilmente e anche invisibilmente, per la lotta contro l’AIDS, ai Camillani, tante altre cose, di tutte le suore che sono a disposizione dei malati.
E direi, non si può superare questo problema dell’AIDS solo con soldi — sono necessari, ma se non c’è l’anima che sa applicarli, non aiutano. Non si può superare con la distribuzione dei preservativi, al contrario aumentano il problema.
La soluzione può essere solo una duplice. La prima, una umanizzazione della sessualità, cioè, un rinnovo spirituale-umano che comporta con sé un nuovo modo di comportarsi l’uno all’altro. E secondo, una vera amicizia anche, e sopratutto, per le persone sofferenti, e una disponabilità anche con sacrifici, con rinunci personali, di essere con i sofferenti.
E questi sono i fattori che aiutano e che portano con sè anche veri e visibili progressi.
Perciò direi questa nostra duplice forza, di rinnovare l’uomo interiormente e di dargli forze spirituali-umane per un comportamento giusto nei confronti del proprio corpo e dell’altro, e questa capacità di soffrire con i sofferenti, di rimanere presente nelle situazioni di prova, mi sembra è la giusta risposta, e la chiesa fa questo e così offre un contributo grandissimo e importante. Ringraziamo tutti che lo fanno.
Our English translation:
I would say the opposite. I think that the reality that is the most effective, the most present and the strongest in the fight against AIDS is precisely the Catholic Church, with its movements and its diverse reality. I think of the Sant’Egidio Community, which does so much visibly and invisibly in the fight against AIDS, of the Camillians, of so many other things, of all the sisters at the service of the sick.
I would say that one cannot overcome this problem of AIDS only with money — (money) is necessary, but if there is no soul that knows how to apply it, it doesn’t help. One cannot overcome it with the distribution of condoms; on the contrary, they increase the problem.
The solution can only be a double one. First, a humanization of sexuality, that is, a spiritual human renewal that brings with it a new way of behaving with one another. Second, a true friendship even and especially with those who suffer, and a willingness to be with the suffering, even with sacrifices and personal renunciation. And these are the factors that help and that result in real and visible progress.
Therefore I would say this is our double strength — to renew the human being from the inside, to give him spiritual human strength for proper behavior regarding one’s own body and toward the other person, and the capacity to suffer with the suffering, to remain present in situations of trial. I think this is the proper response and the church is doing this, and so it offers a great and important contribution. I thank all those who are doing this.