As Spiderman was once so sagely advised, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I venture out on a limb to suggest that the Pope may have missed this memo, at least when it comes to protecting the reproductive health of his one billion or so followers.
The Catholic Church’s staunch view against the use of birth control was cemented in a 1968 pronouncement and hasn’t budged since. After four decades and the explosion of the AIDS epidemic, condoms got a big old “talk to the hand” again last year during the Pope’s trip to Africa, where he said the contraceptive “aggravates the problems” despite the HIV infection of more than 20 million on the continent.
So when I saw the explosive news coverage of the Pope’s latest comments on condoms this weekend, and particularly the overwhelmingly positive–even elated–response from the reproductive health community, I thought for sure a corner had been turned.
Catholics for Choice, one of the most respected and outspoken critics of the Church’s harmful reproductive health policies, called the latest statement “a marvelous victory for common sense and reason” and Planned Parenthood called it a “HUGE leap forward.”
Alas, I think this fanfare is a bit premature. Though I can understand why my fellow repro health activists are groping for glimmers of hope, the Pope’s latest comments leave much (much) to be desired. According to him, condom use overall is still decidedly not safe, effective or morally acceptable, but there are some exceptions to the rule:
There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection.
So, let me get this straight: While the Vatican does not condone condom use, the Pope admits that men who have sex with men (are an important and often neglected high-risk group for HIV) can use them, but only so that they can learn the valuable “lesson”–free from HIV infection–that having sex with men is wrong to begin with?
And why the call-out for male prostitutes? That simply confounds the brain, given the Church’s stance on other aspects of sexual risk and practice, and frankly seems a bit tasteless given the latest round of sex-abuse scandals we are all still reeling from.
If these latest comments do spark a broader global debate, whereby Catholics and Catholic officials can come forward to admit a multiplicity of views on condom use and listen to medical experts and public health officials spout the latest statistics on infection and risk, then brava. But let’s remain tough sells. The reproductive health community needs to continue to hold our public opinion leaders–whether Popes or Presidents–to the highest standard when it comes to our health and rights. What else are we fighting for?
Jessica Mack is a global feminist in the reproductive health field. She blogs over at Gender Across Borders and lives in New York City.