UNAIDS at Vatican Conference: Pope's HIV-condom View Helpful


The head of the U.N. AIDS agency told a Vatican conference on AIDS Saturday that Pope Benedict XVI's comments about the use of condoms in preventing HIV transmission had opened new prospects for dialogue with the U.N.

Dr. Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, said it will help strengthen the fight for greater access to treatment for those afflicted. Sidibe said Benedict's views were important, even if differences remain between the U.N. and Catholic Church.

The U.N. says condoms should be an integral part of HIV prevention programs; the Vatican opposes condoms as part of its overall opposition to artificial contraception.

But Benedict said last year that a male prostitute who intends to use a condom might be taking a first step toward greater responsibility by looking out for the welfare of his partner, even if condoms aren't a moral solution.

"This is very important," Sidibe told the conference. "This has helped me to understand his position better and has opened up a new space for dialogue."

While Benedict's comments in the book "Light of the World" drew near-universal praise within the AIDS community, conservative Catholics insisted he wasn't altering church teaching and that the church's ban on condoms remained. After three attempts at clarification, the Vatican eventually issued a definitive ruling from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith saying the pope in no way was changing church teaching.

Nevertheless, the impression left at least within the AIDS community was that he had made an opening — and Sidibe latched onto that in his comments Saturday.

Sidibe said previously the AIDS community and Catholic Church were "talking over" one another and often held opposing views about how to deal with the AIDS crisis. But he said Benedict's words had opened a new possibility for working together, particularly in agitating for greater access to anti-retroviral treatments for the world's poorest patients.

"Yes, there are areas where we disagree and we must continue to listen, to reflect and to talk together about them. But there are many more areas where we share common cause," Sidibe said.

Increasing access to treatment has become an even greater rallying call following the recently published results of a nine-nation study showing that HIV-positive patients who received early treatment were 96 percent less likely to spread the virus to their uninfected partners.

Sidibe called the research a "game-changer" in the fight against AIDS and Vatican officials said it gave new hope to couples where one partner is HIV-positive and want to have children.

While there had never been an official Vatican policy about condoms and HIV, some Vatican officials had previously insisted that condoms not only don't help fight HIV transmission but make it worse because they gave users a false sense of security. Some claimed the HIV virus could easily pass through the condom's latex barrier.

Benedict himself drew the wrath of UNAIDS and several European countries when, en route to Africa in 2009, he told reporters that the AIDS problem couldn't be resolved by distributing condoms. "On the contrary, it increases the problem," he said then.

The comments drew fierce criticism in Africa, where an estimated 22.4 million people are infected with HIV, two-thirds of the global total.

With his revised comments, the Vatican debate seems to have changed ever so slightly. The fact that Sidibe was even invited to speak at the Vatican was significant; usually only like-minded outsiders are invited to speak at Holy See conferences.

That said, the Vatican officials present made clear that condoms weren't the answer to fighting AIDS and that changing sexual behavior to emphasize marital fidelity was the best answer. Monsignor Zygmunt Zimowski, head of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers which hosted the meeting, didn't even refer to Benedict in his keynote speech.

Rather, he cited Pope John Paul II on three separate occasions, quoting him as speaking about the "crisis of values" that was behind the AIDS crisis.