Inspired review

May 01, 2006

The Vatican has only called for a study, but its decision to review the Catholic Church's opposition to condom use by HIV-infected spouses could have a profound impact on the spread of AIDS in the developing world. The outcome depends on the church's findings, but revising the condom ban for couples afflicted with this often-fatal disease would save lives. That should be the church's focus.

Reports from Rome last week said the Vatican was undertaking the study at the request of Pope Benedict XVI, who acknowledged in a speech to South African bishops last year that lives have been "shattered by this cruel epidemic." Considering the church's strict prohibition on condoms and other contraceptives, the review is an encouraging sign.

The church has promoted sexual abstinence as the best means to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS. Recognition that condom use also can protect against disease transmission could influence the church's relief work overseas.

There are some cardinals who have advocated as a "lesser evil" the use of condoms in a marriage where one spouse carries the virus that causes AIDS. The most recent was retired Milan Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, according to reports in the Italian media. Others, such as Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels, have argued that an infected spouse who had sex without a condom was violating the church's commandment against killing.

Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, who heads the Vatican health office conducting the study, also has recognized the dilemma facing Catholic women when their HIV-infected husbands want to have sex.

The consequences of a shift in the Vatican's position shouldn't be underestimated. Catholics in sub-Saharan Africa - where two-thirds of the world's population of HIV-infected people live - represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the church. Nearly half of the world's 1 billion Catholics live in Latin America and the Caribbean, where AIDS is taking its toll.

Church officials also estimate that nearly 27 percent of centers worldwide that assist AIDS patients are Catholic-sponsored. Catholic Relief Services, the Baltimore-based social service arm of the U.S. church, serves 1.7 million people in its HIV-AIDS programs worldwide.

Those are reasons aplenty for the Vatican to revise its blanket opposition to condom use. The debate may raise sensitive theological questions, but a shift in policy would promote the doctrine of life.

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