Illustration by Patrick Yeung.
In sub-Saharan Africa, 22.5 million people are infected with the HIV virus. Worldwide, the pandemic has affected over 31 million people. Two weeks ago, Pope Benedict XVI said that the most effective known method to prevent transmission, condoms, might be a good idea — but only in some cases.

In an excerpt from an in-depth interview released by the official Vatican newspaper, the Pope stipulated that condoms may in some cases be morally acceptable, “as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom.”

The Pope’s comments, for which he received some praise from AIDS activists and other groups, show some progression on the exceedingly long path to curb the HIV/AIDS pandemic. However, this “progress” is an embarrassingly small step to solve a problem that is ravaging the people of an entire continent. For that, the Pope hardly deserves any credit.

The remarks came in response to a question from a German journalist about criticism the Pope received when, on a 2009 trip to Africa, he said that condoms are not a suitable solution to the scourge of HIV/AIDS plaguing Africa. “On the contrary, they increase the problem,” the Pope said.

In his recent interview, the Pope was presumably trying to clarify what he meant by those much-questioned comments. However, the Pope’s insinuation that a condom is only justified in an extreme case — such as that of a male sex worker having sex with another man — is entirely misguided. The HIV/AIDS virus is not confined merely to sex workers, or any one group.

Still, there are those who applaud the Pope’s recent comments simply because they came from the head of the Catholic Church, an institution that has formally condemned the use of any contraceptive method since the official church teaching, entitled “Humanae Vitae,” that was released by Pope Paul VI was made public. However, when viewed through a real-world framework where millions of people are threatened with contracting AIDS every single day, his comments address a miniscule portion of the issue, and thus, are inadequate.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has provided unequivocal evidence that condoms are effective at reducing the spread of the AIDS virus by 80 percent. For now, condoms represent the only widely accessible and practical barrier method that can be employed by the millions of people worldwide who need to protect themselves against the virus. So what does the Pope suggest those at-risk individuals — who don’t happen to be male prostitutes — do in the meantime? Simply not engage in sexual intercourse? Contract the virus anyway? Just as long as they don’t use a condom. For that, the Pope provides no answer.

While the Pope’s comments are not equal in stature to the official doctrine of the Catholic Church, as the head of a major world religion, his words hold considerable clout. Because of this, African bishops and church officials have openly appealed to the Pope to lessen the stigma of condoms in the hope that it would help prevent the spread of this disease. It appears that this meager concession is the best that the Pope can offer. And for now, official church doctrine will reign supreme over the health and welfare of millions of human beings.