Finally, some good news about the AIDS pandemic: Fewer people are being infected now than at the peak of the spread of the disease. About 2.6 million were infected last year with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This is down 20 percent from the late 1990s, according to The New York Times.

In South Africa, infections among young people are down partly due to parents talking frankly about sex with their children. Imagine that — parents talking to their children about how they were born! I was part of a team from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice in 2001 when we launched a program of faith-based sex education that was comprehensive and trained parents, youth leaders and Sunday school teachers how to talk to children and teens about sex and sexuality. There was tremendous resistance. Conservative pastors and church leaders thought the curriculum was encouraging young people to have sex. They wanted an abstinence-only educational focus. How many had to die before they opened their minds and began talking to children and youths about sexuality and how to avoid being infected with HIV?

Thankfully, there is hope from the medical front: A pill, Truvada, when taken daily, has been found to reduce the spread of HIV among sexually active gay men by up to 90 percent.

And finally, Pope Benedict XVI has opened the theological door to affirming condom use to help stem the spread of HIV in the world. For decades the Roman Catholic popes and bishops have not only discouraged condom use to prevent the transmission of HIV but have suggested that the use of condoms actually spreads HIV.

Now, after more than 25 million have died since the beginning of the pandemic, and as deaths continue to occur worldwide at the rate of 2 million each year, the pope has given an interview in which he suggests that the use of a condom by a male prostitute is not an intrinsically evil act when done to prevent transmission of HIV to the client.

At first, I thought, wow, could there be any narrower construction of this shift in Catholic teaching? So, male prostitutes can use condoms since contraception is not accomplished when used with a male client? I didn’t quite get what the fuss was all about.

But then came a startling clarification. The gender of the prostitute didn’t matter (nor did, I presume, the gender of the client). The pope even went so far as to say that condom use, when intended to prevent transmission of HIV, was a first step toward responsible sexuality.

There is still no clarification on whether a married couple in which one spouse is HIV-positive may use a condom to prevent transmission of HIV, even though contraception is a clear “side effect” of the condom use. But Catholic theologians say that because the intent is disease prevention, not contraception, it may be morally permissible to use condoms. Again, upon first reading I was underwhelmed.

Are male prostitutes really waiting to hear from the pope on whether or not they can use condoms? No, not male prostitutes but rather the thousands of Catholic priests, religious and lay who work faithfully to prevent AIDS around the globe. Might the pope’s statement allow them to speak truth to their “clients”? Might they even feel bold enough to encourage condom use by spouses when one is HIV-positive? Or begin to openly pass out condoms to sex workers for whom they minister? Suddenly, I was no longer underwhelmed, and now I was actually impressed to think that the power of the Roman Catholic hierarchy might be harnessed to help save the lives of millions each year.

In the biblical story, the Egyptian pharaoh refused to set the Hebrew slaves free and allow them to worship their God as Moses had demanded. But after so many of his people died in the final plague, the pharaoh relented and set the people free to worship. Now, can millions of Catholics around the world be free to use condoms and worship God? Can thousands of priests and others free their tongues and hands to help fight the scourge of AIDS and not worry about the “evil” of condom use?

How many have to die before parents get over their embarrassment and start talking frankly and openly with their children?

How many have to die before school boards have nurses and health offices distribute condoms to the kids having sex under the bleachers?

How many have to die before pastors and church leaders, Protestant and Catholic, nondenominational and of other religious persuasions, stop being sanctimonious hypocrites and start being compassionate healers?

The pope has taken a small step in the right direction. As the AIDS pandemic enters its third decade we can only hope that people of good will and deep faith will continue to march toward a cure and an end to this terrible plague on our planet.


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