In March 2009, Pope Benedict told reporters that the problem of AIDS can’t be resolved by distributing condoms: “On the contrary, it increases the problem.”
In remarks released two weeks ago, the Pope appears to have changed course, at least a little bit:
“There could be single cases that can be justified, for instance when a prostitute uses a condom, and this can be a first step towards a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, to develop again the awareness of the fact that not all is allowed and that one cannot do everything one wants.”
AIDS advocates around the world have celebrated this statement. While I am glad that the Pope has opened the door to starting to save lives instead of allowing them to end at a young age, I am far from holding my own celebration. The Catholic Church in the past has displayed a dogmatic distaste for any contraception or STI prevention that doesn’t include a fervent belief in the magical power of abstinence and fidelity to overcome the daily challenges encountered by, for example, women* who have no choice but engage in transactional sex. This has not changed.
The Pope seems to have finally understood the core issue in one way. Using a condom is responsible. It is a way to protect one’s body and that of others around you, be they a husband, a fetus, or even the man paying for sex. Because that man paying for sex also has a wife, who may herself be pregnant. The woman who trades sex for things she needs is also responsible to her parents, her children, and her siblings; if she dies, those around her will suffer. Her children are far more likely to die without their mother around, for lack of a responsible adult ensuring they have enough to eat, clean water to drink, and basic health care.
So yes, women who have transactional sex are choosing the responsible path when they protect themselves. So are teenagers, men, and all women. Which is exactly the point advocates of condom use have been trying to make for 20 years, and exactly the point the Vatican has refused to acknowledge. Until now. Sort of. Because as it is, the edict still only acknowledges that a sex worker can use a condom,provided it is the first step on a path away from prostitution, as if the only thing keeping a woman from choosing another profession were a lack of understanding that “not all is allowed.”
Condoms will not change the worlds of women living in desperate situations. In the world the Pope refuses to see, many women have few economic opportunities and daily are victims of discrimination and even violence. If they don’t understand that “not all is allowed,” it’s because in some places just about everything is allowed: people go without food, without shelter, without water, without access to basic health care. We allow this to go on every day. And it seems as though “one cannot do everything one wants” only applies to the poor and disenfranchised. The Pope certainly doesn’t spend time releasing statements about modern-day villains like investment bankers, even as they return to the same rapacious cycle that has the US hovering near a 10% unemployment rate.
So thank you, Pope Benedict, for reminding me that, in the end, although you’ve given hope to many by acknowledging that condoms might be “justified” for those “single cases,” what you really care about is blaming women for having sex, and exerting control by reminding them that they are not “allowed” to do “whatever” they want.
*The Pope’s statement led to significant confusion among his followers; it was initially unclear if he meant male prostitutes, female prostitutes, or both. The Vatican has since clarified the statement to indicate that he means to include both male and female sex workers. For simplicity, I will use women as an example, as the issues brought up in reference to men, women, or transfolk share some similarities but also have significant differences.