On route to Africa last year in March, Pope Benedict defended the work of the Catholic Church to help AIDS victims in Africa. He stated that merely distributing condoms is not stopping the AIDS epidemic. In his opinion, they actually worsen the problem. This comment was not well received. Not at all. Now he comes back to the topic with a new remark.
I find the evidence that condom use reduces the likelihood of transmitting AIDS completely convincing. Studies in Thai houses of prostitution show quite clearly that a policy of encouraging the use of condoms reduces the number of AIDS infections. In spite of this, one public health expert, Edward Green from the Harvard School of Public Health, defended the pope in the Washington Post. In his analysis, condom distribution campaigns were ineffective in Africa. He supported the availability of condoms only as secondary part of a larger strategy addressing the underlying social problems.
Now Benedict returned to his remarks from last year and the topic of condoms. For male prostitutes, it is OK to use them. Or, more accurately, they can be a step in the right direction, towards a moral lifestyle. A spokesman for the pope just clarified that it does not matter whether it is a male or female prostitute; the point is that the use of condoms can be an expression of taking responsibility.
It may seem like a very small step. It only acknowledges what many Catholics working with prostitutes and others at the margins of society have long known. Nevertheless, there is something in Benedict’s comments that I find very encouraging.
As a bio-scientist, I am often mystified by the Church’s approach to bioethics. It seems to be focused on the morality of individual acts in isolation rather than the whole situation and the overall intend. True, good ends do not justify wrong means. But, can we say that certain acts are always wrong, no matter what? To say that murder is always wrong is not an answer—murder is the wrongful killing of a human person, so of course, it is always wrong. That’s just what the word “murder” means.
Is using condoms always wrong? Well, it seems to me that Benedict has chosen to argue differently by looking at the whole of the prostitute’s life. The conclusion is that in this particular case, the use of a condom is actually a good thing. We take one step at a time towards an ever fuller expression of God’s love in our lives. This, for me, is a small but hopeful sign that the Church may one day get better at communicating what she is trying to say.