TOPICS > Health

Catholic Church Looks to Lead Conversation on Combating HIV/AIDS

May 27, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Amid its controversial stance over condom use, the Catholic Church is hosting a two-day conference on the global fight against HIV/AIDS. Reporting from Rome, Ray Suarez previews the conference.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, amid a controversy over condom use, the Catholic Church opens a conference in Rome on combating HIV/AIDS.

Our Ray Suarez is covering that conference and I talked to him earlier today from St. Peter’s Square.

Ray, hello.

First, tell us more about why this conference is taking place right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the church wants to remind people that it’s been in the front lines of the battle against AIDS for years.

But it can’t be entirely a coincidence that this conference was called in the midst of ensuing furor and ensuing controversy over remarks from the Vatican about the prevention of the transmission of AIDS.

There was questions: Would the church revisit or simply restate its original teaching on condom use? So, a lot more attention was paid to the existence of this conference, which is called the Centrality of Care for the Person in the Prevention of Treatment of Illnesses Caused by HIV and AIDS.

So, it’s both a kind of restating and also a convening of Catholic health care workers from all over world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell us what the church has been saying about the transmission of HIV/AIDS.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, since the 1960s, the Catholic Church has taught its believers around the world that condoms are forbidden for use in family planning.

But the church was less clear and less categorical when it came to their use in spreading the prevention of AIDS — that is, until recent years, when the church has been more outspoken about condom use, and, of course, Catholic facilities that are in business of preventing and treating AIDS didn’t choose to use them in their answer to the disease.

In 2009, when the pope was on his way to Africa, he told reporters that condoms had not been useful — in fact, they maybe made the problem worse, and that the best thing to do was to be chaste outside of marriage and for — he spoke up for fidelity inside marriage.

These two approaches would, of course, lessen the transmission everywhere in the world a great deal. Then, further controversy erupted with the release of a book in the fall of 2010, the “Light of the World,” in which Pope Benedict XVI said that condoms do not prevent the spread of AIDS; in fact, they may make the problem worse.

But then he said that a male prostitute who chose to use a condom to protect his partner maybe engaged in some moral reasoning, which, to many observers, seemed to be like the pope was opening the door a crack in describing this as a time in which condom use was permissible to prevent the spread of AIDS.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ray, since we know that the pope is neither a physician, nor someone who holds a government position connected to health, why is what he is saying in this area of HIV transmission getting so much attention?

RAY SUAREZ: Judy, there’s a massive audience for whatever the Catholic Church teaches in this regard, because you have to remember that, with over 1 billion members around the world, one out of every six people on planet Earth is a Catholic.

And the Catholic Church has been very hard at work in the hardest-hit countries in the world when it’s come to the scourge of HIV and AIDS. There are, in fact, 117,000 Catholic medical facilities, from clinics in the deepest jungle to large urban hospitals in the developing world, that are involved in treating both people that are already infected with AIDS and trying to prevent the transmission to at-risk populations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now that this conference is getting under way, is anyone expecting a redefinition of Catholic teaching in this area?

RAY SUAREZ: It was an open question for a long while, as the church kept very close to the vest who was going to speak, the organization of the conference, what the themes of the sessions would be.

And, in that time, there’s been a hardening consensus from people outside the Catholic Church who are involved in the fight against AIDS and people inside the church that the church was going to restate its original position that there is no — no permitted use of condoms either in the — in family planning or in the fight against AIDS.

And the church seems to be ready to stick to its guns in saying that condom use, especially in the countries where condoms have been widely distributed and made part of the national strategy for fighting HIV and AIDS, has not led to reductions in transmission or in a reduction of the number of infected people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Ray, thank you. We will be watching the outcome of the conference, and we will certainly be watching your reporting. Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: Judy, good to talk to you.