Pope Benedict XVI is abdicating his position. Now seems like a good moment to reflect on his mixed record on condom use for HIV prevention.

During his first visit to Africa in March 2009, the Pope made some comments about the utility of condoms for HIV/AIDS prevention that caused great concern in the public health community.

Pope Benedict said on the eve of his trip that he wanted to wrap his arms around the entire continent, with “its painful wounds, its enormous potential and hopes”.

HIV/Aids was, he argued, “a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which can even increase the problem”.

Over 20 million Africans are living with HIV and Catholicism is a fast growing religion on the continent. The Pope’s statement understandably upset a number of public health advocates, and earned rare condemnation from European governments and the United Nations. UNAIDS, the World Health Organization and UNFPA released this fact sheet the day after the Pope’s unfortunately comment and went on a mini PR blitz in Africa to counter this message.

Since then, however, the Pope as moderated his stance. In November 2010 the Pope entertained the idea that condoms could be appropriate in some circumstances to prevent the spread of disease.

“There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility,” Benedict said.

That comment was a very big deal for the health community. It provided an opening that health workers needed to reach Catholic communities with high HIV rates.

“The Pope’s 2009 declaration created an uproar and confused believers and we found a certain resistance to accept condoms — it was very difficult,” said Eugide Bashombana, HIV Officer for aid group Oxfam in Democratic Republic of Congo.

“These comments are positive in the sense that they correct the message he gave last year. Now we need to really spread the word right into the villages,” Bashombana said of the ex-Belgian colony where Catholics make up around half the population and which has an estimated HIV infection rate of 4.3 percent.

The fact is, condoms are vert effective tools for HIV prevention. “The male latex condom is the single, most efficient, available technology to reduce the sexual transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections,” says the WHO. It can reduce chances of transmission by 80%. Condoms are a key tool of the combination prevention strategy that has helped to reduce the spread of HIV in the hardest hit countries over the past decade.

It was heartening to see the Pope admit that condoms can be effective ways to prevent the spread of disease. His words have consequences. Let’s hope that whomever replaces Benedict will share a similar evolution.