10/14/2014 08:48 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Vatican's Unfinished Business -- Accepting Gays Is Great, But What About Condoms?

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For all those who care more about fairness than doctrine, this is a moment to be savored. It is like the day in 1990 when Nelson Mandela was released from his South African jail: You just knew that apartheid's days were done.

Of course, South Africa was responding to tremendous pressure for change. Yet, much as then President F.W. de Klerk deserved praise for bringing about Mandela's historic release, so does Pope Francis deserve our genuine admiration for leading the Church to a more enlightened view of lesbians and gays. Full acceptance will surely follow.

However, the synod is not done, and there is more work to do. It's one thing to acknowledge the full humanity and worth of sexual minorities, but if the bishops break up without a change in policy on condoms, then millions will die horrible, unnecessary deaths.

Sounds absurd, doesn't it? Yet that's the great overlooked truth about harms the Mother Church does in the world. The facts are simple: The Catholic Church is growing explosively in sub-Saharan Africa. HIV infections are growing explosively in the very same place. Some 25 million Africans are HIV-positive, and the infection rate grows by more than a million a year -- as does the AIDS death toll. More than 15 million AIDS orphans are left to fend for themselves. Suffering on this scale ranks among the great human tragedies of history.


Yet, for decades even while Catholic clinics cared for the dying the Vatican has thrown fuel on the pyre. Under Pope John Paul II, the Vatican began actively campaigning against the use of condoms to prevent HIV transmission. It adopted the lie -- there is no other word for it -- that condoms do not block the virus.

In 2003, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo went on television to say that condoms were so risky that they should carry a health warning similar to those on packs of cigarettes:

"The AIDS virus is roughly 450 times smaller than the spermatozoon. The spermatozoon can easily pass through the 'net' that is formed by the condom. These margins of uncertainty... should represent an obligation on the part of the health ministries and all these campaigns to act in the same way as they do with regard to cigarettes, which they state to be a danger."

That was a gross distortion. While condoms, like anything else, can malfunction, they do not form a "net" through which viruses, let alone sperm, can travel. The harm was amplified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, when on a trip to Africa he said that the distribution of condoms could not halt the spread of AIDS. "On the contrary," he told reporters, "it increases the problem." This is plainly counter-factual.

No one can say with certainty how many Africans have been deterred from condom use and fallen victim to HIV. Given the church's size and influence in the region, and given the 30 million AIDS dead, the number cannot be small.

So, Pope Francis, cardinals, and bishops, if you truly care about humanity, the way is open. We don't expect you to endorse condoms or sex outside of marriage. But just as a halfway measure on acceptance of gays has brought you showers of praise, so you can do a world of good by simply stating that, in the midst of a deadly epidemic, the use of a condom may clearly be the lesser of two evils.

If it's a sin, surely you can absolve the survivors.