VATICAN CITY – The Vatican will host an international conference in May on preventing AIDS and caring for those afflicted with it amid continued confusion over its position concerning condoms as a way to prevent HIV transmission.
The Vatican's Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers also said Thursday it was working on a set of guidelines for Catholic doctors, nurses and others who care for people with HIV and AIDS.
Pope Benedict XVI made headlines late last year when he said in a book interview that someone, such as a male prostitute, who uses a condom to prevent HIV transmission might be showing a first sign of a more moral sexuality because he is looking out for the welfare of another person.
The comments set off a flurry of confusion about whether the pope was justifying condom use in a break with church doctrine opposing contraception. The Vatican insisted he was not.
Monsignor Jean-Marie Mpendawatu Mate Musivi, undersecretary in the Vatican health office, told reporters Thursday that the Vatican's position would be explained at the May 28 conference, to which the head of UNAIDS and other prominent AIDS researchers had been invited.
"There is a problem of comprehension, of explaining things well and what the pope really said," he said.
UNAIDS said Thursday it was interested in attending, but that its executive director, Michel Sidibe, couldn't commit at this point. Agency spokesman Edward Mishaud noted that Sidibe had welcomed the pope's comments back in November when the book came out.
Mate Musivi stressed that the church's position about how to fight AIDS goes well beyond the question of condoms and focuses on prevention programs at the school, community and family levels. The church has long stressed that abstinence and monogamous marriages are the best ways to prevent HIV transmission.
As a result of that position though, Benedict's comments surprised many since it marked the first time a pope had even acknowledged that condoms were effective in fighting HIV. In fact, during a trip to Africa in 2009, Benedict himself had said that AIDS couldn't be resolved by distributing condoms and that on the contrary "it increases the problem."
The pope's new comments though, sparked such confusion that the Vatican had to issue three official clarifications, the last of which came Dec. 21 from the authoritative Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The Vatican's top doctrine office stressed that the pope was by no means saying condoms could be morally acceptable to avoid pregnancy. But it implied that the intention of a male prostitute to use a condom to prevent disease was less evil than infecting his partner.
Reports of the pope's comments had been greeted with relief among AIDS activists and even among some church personnel working on the front lines in Africa, where UNAIDS estimates that 22.4 million people are infected with HIV.
The church's long-standing opposition to condoms as a form of birth control has drawn fierce criticism given that 54 percent of infected Africans — or 12.1 million people — are women.
Theologians have debated for years whether it could be morally acceptable for HIV-infected people to use condoms to avoid infecting their spouses. The Vatican's health care office years ago was reportedly preparing a document on the subject, but it never came out.
Mate Musivi suggested the guidelines under study wouldn't go beyond what had already been discussed by Benedict in his book "Light of the World" and the Vatican's subsequent clarification, though he said the results of the May 28 conference would also be taken into account.
"The church has to let this mature, it must digest and reflect on this," he said, adding that he didn't know when the guidelines would be released.