At a weekend HIV/AIDS conference at the Vatican, the Catholic Church stood firm on its stance against the use of condoms to protect against the transmission of HIV. Ray Suarez and the NewsHour’s Global Health Unit report from Rome.
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GWEN IFILL: The Catholic Church reaffirms its stand on the use of condoms in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Ray Suarez and our Global Health Unit report from Rome.
RAY SUAREZ: Throughout the spring, pilgrims and tourists from around the world have poured into the Vatican, drawn by the beatification of Pope John Paul II, putting him on the road to sainthood just six years after his death.
Also heading to Vatican City over the weekend, theologians, health officials and researchers for a meeting about the treatment of HIV and AIDS. The church is one of the biggest providers of HIV/AIDS care in the world, with more than 117,000 health facilities worldwide.
The conference was convened amid ongoing controversy about the Catholic Church’s opposition to using condoms to control the spread of AIDS. AIDS groups around the world had hoped the church would use the conference to announce a reversal of its position. The answer turned out to be a resounding no.
Over the past two years, Pope Benedict XVI has issued statements open to conflicting interpretation that encouraged some to think the church was taking a more nuanced position on condom use in HIV prevention.
REV. MICHAEL CZERNY, The African Jesuit AIDS Network: I don’t think there was any confusion about what he meant.
RAY SUAREZ: But Father Michael Czerny, a key health official for the church, says the pope continues to believe condoms don’t help prevent AIDS.
REV. MICHAEL CZERNY: He mentioned one of the solutions that people tend to promote, and he pointed out that it wasn’t the solution that people think it is. And so they understood what he said, and they disagreed with him very vehemently, very vehemently.
RAY SUAREZ: But AIDS advocates were encouraged last fall when the pope seemed to indicate a softening of his position during a book interview.
"There may be a basis in the case of some individuals," he said, "as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be the first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility."
Jon O’Brien, who heads Catholics for Choice, wasn’t at the conference this week, but still maintained that the pope’s comments had signaled a new thinking at the Vatican.
JON O’BRIEN, Catholics for Choice: The statement by the pope was a major game-changer. It was a victory for common sense and for reason. And it’s a sign that what we hoped from Pope Benedict would be that he would be a listening pope.
RAY SUAREZ: The pope himself didn’t attend, but sent his secretary of state.
Most of those attending spoke in support of the church’s teaching, but there was some disagreement.
Michel Sidibe is the head of UNAIDS, which strongly endorses the use of condoms as a prevention strategy.
MICHEL SIDIBE, UNAIDS: I welcome the Pope Benedict’s recent clarification of the use of condom for HIV prevention. This is very important.
RAY SUAREZ: Monsignor Jean-Marie Mpendawatu Musivi was one of the conference organizers.
MSGR. JEAN-MARIE MPENDAWATU MUSIVI, Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers (through translator): I think we should read everything in the whole speech that the pope made, because if you just extrapolate a few sentences, then these few sentences will not give you the whole meaning of the discourse of the pope. Therefore, you have to go into details and read the entire passage in order to understand the real meaning.
RAY SUAREZ: Meaning, in short, that the pope’s statement didn’t change policy. Catholics and Catholic agencies wouldn’t use condoms as part of an AIDS prevention strategy.
Sean Callahan is with U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services, which works with governments and NGOs combating AIDS through the developing world.
SEAN CALLAHAN, Catholic Relief Services: As a Catholic organization, we don’t support the use of condoms and we don’t promote it. What we focus on his behavior change. The problem you see with condoms is not only the utilization of them, but can they be utilized well, are they there all the time, and things of that nature. And that is one of the reasons why the church is against it, besides other church teachings.
RAY SUAREZ: In a space of a few decades, the condom has moved from being an object spoken of in whispers to pharmacists, restricted in local sales, hard to get in many places, to something that is near ubiquitous in the 21st century, even available from a street-side vending machine around the corner from Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Condoms, along with testing, have been the cornerstones of AIDS prevention efforts around the world. But even as the graveyards of sub-Saharan Africa continue to fill up, new infections continue — 1,000 a day in South Africa.
Edward Green has the perspective of an AIDS researcher, not a theologian. And he says the numbers bear out the pope’s position.
EDWARD GREEN, AIDS researcher: Certainly, in Africa, in the years since 1988, we have seen that greater condom use is not associated with lower HIV infection rates. So yes, they have been oversold. People who do use condoms have a — tend to have a false sense of security and take greater risks than they would take if they were not using condoms at all.
RAY SUAREZ: A man I spoke with outside Johannesburg in 2009 showed the lack of acceptance of condom use in Africa.
MAN: I am a man. I have to sleep with another woman.
RAY SUAREZ: Right.
MAN: On the other side, I have an original woman.
RAY SUAREZ: I understand. But if there’s a risk of AIDS, how come people don’t stop and say, OK, only one?
MAN: They won’t. They won’t stop. They won’t stop.
RAY SUAREZ: Until they die?
MAN: Until they die, because they don’t — they don’t believe in — in condoms. They are living a true African. They say, “I’m an African. I won’t use — I won’t use a condom.”
RAY SUAREZ: Kevin Dowling is a Catholic bishop who wasn’t invited to the Vatican conference. We spoke with him last week as he met patients outside his rural clinic. Dowling has been on the front lines of the HIV/AIDS epidemic for nearly 20 years and runs one of the largest AIDS treatment programs in South Africa.
BISHOP KEVIN DOWLING, AIDS worker: We do not distribute condoms. We do not distribute condoms. We give people the information they need to make an informed decision in conscience about what they are going to do in their lives.
RAY SUAREZ: Bishop Dowling sees what he calls the injustice and degradation of transactional sex, or survival sex, among the poorest women, and says there’s protection in condom use.
BISHOP KEVIN DOWLING: The option to be faithful to a single partner within marriage just doesn’t obtain in these situations. That is where the issue of the use of a condom, not for contraceptive purposes, but to prevent the transmission of a death-dealing virus, comes into play.
RAY SUAREZ: Again and again at the Vatican meeting, church leaders stressed behavior change: chastity outside marriage and fidelity within marriage.
MSGR. JACQUES SUAUDEAU, Pontifical Academy for Life (through translator): We have to educate on chastity. We have to strengthen families. We have to work on change in sexual behavior. Chastity is joyous.
ARCHBISHOP ZYGMUNT ZIMOWSKI, Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers (through translator): Were promiscuity not endemic, HIV wouldn’t be an epidemic.
RAY SUAREZ: Catholic Church officials also strongly condemned the tendency for poor people to get poorer medical care around the world, especially those suffering with AIDS, and repeatedly stressed the promise of AIDS drugs, antiretrovirals, in stopping the spread of the disease.
But Catholic leaders have daunting advice for married couples with one infected partner: long-term celibacy within marriage.
MSGR. JEAN-MARIE MPENDAWATU MUSIVI (through translator): The key issue is that the couple should refrain from risky behaviors. They should abstain from sexual intercourse, because this is very risky for them. And the church is very, very close, very near to these families to help them achieve this goal.
RAY SUAREZ: On the day of the Vatican conference, Catholics for Choice ran an ad in one of Italy’s most influential newspapers, Il Corriere della Sera.
It thanked the pope for saying condoms can prevent the spread of HIV, and continued in part, “We believe in God. We believe in caring for each other. We believe condoms save lives.”
Groups like Catholics for Choice will be disappointed by the church’s strong restatement of longstanding prohibition on condoms under any circumstances. But, despite the disagreements, governments still need the resources and expertise of the Catholic Church. They will not turn away what is still vital, lifesaving help over condom policy.