In Africa, Asia and South America, Catholics Grapple with Morality of Condoms

12/03/2010 04:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Pope Benedict XVI's comments last month that condom use can be justified in some cases to help curb the spread of AIDS were surprising to me only because they came from the very top of the Catholic Church. But in my 10 years of managing condom social marketing programs for HIV prevention and family planning, I have come across shocking discrimination as well as enlightenment and compassion from Catholics working with people at the grassroots.

Exactly 18 years ago, on World AIDS Day 1992, I launched "Maximum" condoms ("Strong for Maximum Protection, Sensitive for Maximum Pleasure") in Zambia, a country that had double digit HIV prevalence but no reliable source of high quality, low-priced condoms. Zambia also had a newly-elected president, Frederick Chiluba, who was a born-again Christian and stridently anti-condom.

We had a big launch event at the Pamodzi Hotel with lots of speeches and exhortations on the importance of using condoms. Surprisingly to me, we also had a Catholic priest and nun in attendance. They had come separately and neither was wearing religious attire.

The nun worked in the Copperbelt region of Zambia where she was fighting AIDS among miners. And the priest was Father Michael Kelly, an Irish Jesuit who had founded Kara Counseling, Zambia's first HIV counseling and testing center, and later became a good friend.

I asked Father Michael what he was doing there given his church's stance on contraception. He was not there to support condoms for contraceptive purposes, he said, which was banned by the Vatican. But he felt that good Catholics should always fight disease, and that condoms used for HIV prevention do that. So he saw no contradiction between condoms for HIV prevention and his Catholic faith. His argument was actually evidence-based, since research showed that Zambians who did use condoms used them overwhelmingly for HIV prevention, not family planning.

In Zambia, our project had a fund-raising dinner dance, and we donated the proceeds to an AIDS orphanage. The Catholic sisters were only too happy to receive the much needed funds for children who had lost both parents to AIDS. But when the photo of the presentation of the check came out in the newspaper, the Catholic hierarchy was enraged that the orphanage had taken "tainted money," and made the sisters give it back.

In Bangladesh, a strongly Muslim country, I had no problem whatsoever with the government or religious leaders. Although HIV/AIDS was not yet considered a big problem there, everyone (including successive governments of rival political parties) understood the threat of overpopulation in a country the size of Wisconsin with 140 million people, and fully supported our work promoting condoms and other contraceptives for family planning.

Paraguay, a strongly Catholic country where I lived from 1997 to 2001, was more complicated. I heard of priests visiting patients in Catholic hospitals who would stand in the doorways of the rooms of AIDS patients and not enter. I had the personal experience of one of my condom sales agents, Marcos Frutos, telling me that his priest had not allowed him to become godfather to a family member because of Marcos' job. I know that hurt Marcos very much, but he did not back down.

But I also knew of Catholic priests and nuns at the local level in Paraguay who supported our work and, in some cases, even distributed condoms to their parishioners.

And I found that it was possible to find common ground with opponents. We ran afoul of a group of Catholic parents who were offended by a sex education booklet we had published called "Hablemos Claro Sobre Sexo" for our adolescent program. They thought it overemphasized condoms and underemphasized abstinence. They were probably right. We heard them out, made most of the changes they requested and then continued happily in our work targeting adolescents.

In 2002, I spent two days with Kenneth Kaunda, the father of Zambian independence and the first president of Zambia, to create a series of HIV prevention public service announcements, including one promoting condoms. I knew President Kaunda was a man of faith, and I asked him how he could he could justify condom promotion in light of that faith. I also knew he had lost a son to AIDS in the 1980s, when he was still president and there was a lot of stigma against HIV-positive Zambians, and that he was very public about the fact that his son had died of AIDS. In response, he gave me the most original religious justification for condoms I have ever heard:

Condoms can prolong life, President Kaunda said. Some people need more time than others to find God and get close to him. If their life is cut short by AIDS, they may never find God. Condoms give them the extra time they need in their life to get right with God.