Pope Clarifies: Condoms a “Lesser Evil”

After a few days of speculation, and perhaps putting some words in the Pope’s mouth, the Vatican’s spokesman has come forward to clarify the Pope’s recent comments on condom use.

The Pope is not condoning homosexual relations, prostitution or condom use just for males. Three out of three of those things are still very, very wrong. The Vatican maintains its castigating eye, but clarifies that when faced with the decision whether to use condoms or transmit/contract HIV, condom use is officially the lesser of those two evils. And this goes equally for men, women, and “transsexuals.” Relieved, aren’t you?

This is actually big news if we look at the relative shift that’s taken place in just about one year.

During a 2009 trip to Africa that he probably wishes he never took, the Pope announced that condoms are not only not helpful in stemming the spread of HIV, but could actually be harmful. His comments were met with harsh and relentless global criticism, and rightfully so.  I mean, to have the gall to tell a continent with 22 million people living and dying with HIV that condom use will harm them? I think that is tantamount to reckless endangerment.

Yet today is the dawn of a new day. While the AIDS community made a breakthrough of its own, announcing results that the daily use of AIDS drugs are incredibly effective at preventing HIV infection, the Vatican has taken its own crucial baby steps: Condom use just got scooched toward the “good side” of the spectrum of evil.

Yet I maintain that the urge to celebrate or congratulate should still be tempered, and that as advocates and activists we can’t let up. An AIDS activist colleague of mine made the point that this very shift is due to widespread global and vocal opposition from the 2009 trip.  Our opposition is working to affect real change, so we need to continue building that influence.

And did we actually need the Pope to clarify, or reassure us, that condom use is less evil than transmitting HIV?  Well apparently so, and that fact is a very scary thing. Writing from Johannesburg, The Guardian’s David Smith reports that, “For the faithful, fear of AIDS comes second to fear of God.” That is, what the Pope says literally affects the lives and livelihoods of his followers.

This is where public health and religion mingle intensely, my friends. Religion is a supremely powerful cultural force, pervasive in much of the developing world where we also find pernicious diseases such as HIV/AIDS or maternal mortality in epidemic proportions. We should take this opportunity opened up by the Pope’s comments to consider how public-health programs might better integrate a thoughtful understanding of the role that religion and religious beliefs play in the choices people make and the risks they take.

Jessica Mack is a global feminist in the reproductive health field.  She blogs over at Gender Across Borders and lives in New York City.

“Pope-corn” photo via Flickr user stu_spivack under Creative Commons 3.0.


  1. I'm glad for any reason behind the official shift toward anything sexual. But in our overcrowded world, what we really need from many religious organizations is an understanding that birth control is no longer merely helpful (and sometimes lifesaving) for some women; it is necessary for our planet to survive as a home for human beings.

  2. It's actually not that difficult to see how promoting condom use could make things worse in Africa. They fail…a lot. And pushing condoms makes it easier to ignore the poverty, lack of economic progress, other diseases and health-related problems the continent faces. Easier to smugly point to the Pope and say he's responsible for everything. http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/artic

    • Jessica Mack says:

      Paul, you're right that condoms aren't fail proof – of course. Even when used correctly they aren't 100% effective, and there are a host of cultural reasons why using them is difficult, especially for women when negotiation is tough. But I disagree promoting condom use makes it easier to ignore poverty, lack of economic progress, and other health issues. I think that might be attributed to inefficiency of aid agencies and local governments, lack of coordination in on-the-ground programs, corruption, and perhaps just plain ignorance. Agree that no smug pointing fingers at the Pope should take place, but let's not point fingers at condom-use either. They have already, and will continue to, done a whole host of good.

  3. The Pope should meddle with his own affairs to start with cleaning up the rampant pedophilia in his own ranks!
    There have been massive demographic explosions, wherever the Popes have visited the planet..Their view on family planing is plain old murderous..Mother Theresa did nothing for the poor except promoting the irresponsible rules of the Popes .She was the Pope's best public relations. I know firsthand, because I visited a lot of her so-called orphanages ( some of the children had been taken away from the parents denied proper family planing!)
    The women are the ones to suffer the most of these archaic Laws that have no place in our society.. Just read Paul Ehrlich : The Population Bomb, which is what is killing our planet..
    Are we going to be like the population on Easter Island? The earth will survive long after we will have disappeared through our folly, greed, stupid beliefs and ignorance..

  4. I think that people should have the right to plan their families and make individual choices on what methods of birth Control. I was wondering if anyone has information on Bill and Linda Gates plan on World Population Control?

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