Catholic authorities sharply criticized condoms as an ineffective HIV prevention that encourages immoral behavior at a Vatican-hosted AIDS conference Saturday, even as UNAIDS expressed hopes for new dialogue on the issue.
Instead, Vatican officials hailed recent findings that AIDS medications can be highly effective in preventing transmission and called for a change in “amoral sexual attitudes” that contribute to the spread of HIV.
The concept of using HIV medications as prevention offers particular appeal because it could be used within a marriage, without violating the tenet that the act of sex be “open to life.”
The AIDS conference was originally called in the wake of confusion over a statement by Pope Benedict XVI in late 2010 saying that use of a condom by certain individuals, like a male HIV-positive prostitute, might be a “first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.”
Some AIDS advocates read the words as a potential loosening of the Church’s long-held stance against condoms, which are “the single, most efficient, available technology to reduce the sexual transmission of HIV,” according to UNAIDS. But the Vatican insisted the statement reflected no change.
Appearing at the conference Saturday, the head of UNAIDS Michel Sidibe echoed some of the disconnect when he praised the pope’s earlier statement on the potential use of condoms for HIV.
“This is very important,” Sidibe said. “This has helped me to understand his position better and has opened up a new space for dialogue.”
Catholic organizations, which are a major provider of AIDS care in the developing world, are among the agency’s “strongest allies” against the epidemic, Sidibe said.
“Yes there are many areas where we disagree … but there are many more areas where we share common cause,” he said.
Those common goals as expressed at the conference, which the pope did not attend, include increasing access to antiretroviral therapy for patients, both for it’s life-saving value and to prevent transmission, as well as treating HIV patients on a more personal level, addressing the needs of the body and spirit.
But no new common ground was found on condoms as prevention—there were few presenters from outside the Church, and there was no question which message the Church was sending.
“The truth is a condom is seen as something illicit because it goes against the Christian marriage,” said Monseigneur Jacques Suaudeau, from the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers. “People thought they could continue with their lifestyle thanks to the use of condoms. … To many it was simply a way to continue to be totally irresponsible.”
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi said condoms were presented as a “quick fix” by public health authorities and governments, and the Church has been unfairly accused of standing in the way of HIV prevention by advocating abstinence and faithfulness instead.
“Promotion of behavior change toward more responsible sexual relationships has been much more effective than condom promotion in decreasing new HIV infections,” Tomasi said.
As evidence, he pointed to the work of Edward Green, the former director for the AIDS Prevention Research Project at Harvard University, and current director of the New Paradigm Fund, who was invited to the conference to discuss his findings that only male circumcision and reduction of partners have produced declines in a country’s HIV infection rates.
Condoms, he argued, actually encourage riskier sexual behavior and are often not used by people in relationships.
“Consistent condom use is achieved by only a small number of people in general populations,” Green said.
But with no vaccine or microbicide available for HIV, condoms are still one of the only forms of prevention health care workers can offer patients, and they are scientifically proven to be highly effective against HIV infection when used correctly and regularly.
The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria provides funds for condom prevention programs, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars to Catholic charities involved in health services in the developing world. Christopher Benn, head of external relations for the fund presented at the conference on the topic of treatment. After the conference he said in an interview he was not discouraged that the condom issue went largely undebated.
“Condoms are an important element of HIV prevention,” Benn said. “But this can be done through governments and other agencies.” He emphasized that no prevention method will stop the AIDS epidemic alone.
Filippo Von Schlosser, head of the HIV patient advocacy group Nadir Onlus, based in Rome, said activist organizations like his were not allowed to participate in the conference and that is part of why the Church’s stance on condoms won’t change.
“I think that the Catholic Church has gone so far away from the real life and the human beings [on this issue] that actually nobody listens,” Schlosser said. “I think that the Church has lost a big opportunity.”