December 1 is World AIDS Day , held annually to raise awareness of the spread of HIV/AIDS and its nearly 35 million victims worldwide.

In advance of this year’s World AIDS Day, Craig McClure, Chief of the HIV & AIDS Section for UNICEF hosted an “ Ask Me Anything ” live chat on Reddit. As one might expect, the majority of questions centered around AIDS transmission, prevention, and treatment. More surprising (and perhaps disheartening) were the number of questions asking, in one form or another, how much the teachings of the Catholic Church and other religious organizations contributed to the spread of HIV/AIDS.

McClure neatly sidestepped any potential landmines, saying only that “Condoms are one of the most important interventions to prevent HIV infection - safer sex is critical to ending AIDS.” A few anonymous commenters later suggested, wrongly, that the pope had approved the use of condoms for preventing AIDS.

They were referring to Pope Benedict XVI’s attempt in  Light of the World , a book of interviews published in 2010, to clarify the Church’s teachings on condom usage in AIDS prevention:

She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.

This led many to believe that the Catholic church had changed its teaching. In fact, the pope was making a subtler point illustrated by moral philosopher Janet Smith:
If someone was going to rob a bank and was determined to use a gun, it would be better for that person to use a gun that had no bullets in it [for that] would reduce the likelihood of fatal injuries. But it is not the task of the Church to instruct potential bank robbers how to rob banks more safely and certainly not the task of the Church to support programs of providing potential bank robbers with guns that could not use bullets. Nonetheless, the intent of a bank robber to rob a bank in a way that is safer for employees and customers of the bank may indicate an element of moral responsibility that could be a step towards eventual understanding of the immorality of bank robbing.

In short, the church recognizes the good intentions that can motivate condom use without approving such use. Rather, the Church affirms that the problem of AIDS
cannot be resolved solely with the distribution of condoms, because much more must be done: prevention, education, assistance, counsel, being close to people, both so that they do not become sick, and also in cases where they are sick.

It is problematic, to say the least, that for many the first question about the global AIDS epidemic is whether the Pope “wants people to die from AIDS” because Catholic teaching opposes the use of contraception. Such misconceptions distract from the true concern and obscure the compassion shown by the Church and other religious organizations in their care for AIDS victims and affected communities worldwide.

The simple promotion of condom use will not end the AIDS crisis. It is possible, however, that a fuller understanding of human sexuality and moral responsibility as advocated by the Christian faith could help to slow the disease’s spread.

Christine Emba, an editor living in New York, has worked in international development and AIDS prevention.

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