One week after Pope John Paul II, 84, died on April 2, a gushy NBC prime-time special, Pope John Paul II,1920–2005, proclaimed, “If there was a Ronald Reagan of Catholicism,this was the person.” In AIDS terms, the parallel was all too apt. Likethe Gipper, JP failed to meet the terrible test of stopping HIV frombecoming the greatest public-heath disaster in modern times. Still,most world media performed an instant canonization. The hagiographersdidn’t mind the Pope’s staunch refusal to sanction condom usethroughout his 26-year reign. During his tenure, AIDS killednearly 30 million, ravaging the third-world nations he so pointedlyembraced. Now, as ultraconservative German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger,78, morphs into Pope Benedict XVI, AIDS activists are hoping to witnessa miracle of sorts. For the first time since the epidemic hit, they candream that the new pope will—against all evidence of his frequentlyself-proclaimed “fundamentalism” —poke holes in the Vatican’santi-condom dogma, which holds that no action before, during or aftersex can be used to prevent procreation.

“Catholic activists arehoping a dialogue on condoms will open up,” says Jeff Stone, a longtimemember of Dignity USA, a gay Catholic activist group. As too thescholarly Ratzinger, who presided at John Paul’s funeral afterfaithfully serving for more than two decades as his doctrinal watchdogand political lightning rod, Stone takes a pragmatic view. “Giventhe damage AIDS is wreaking, the bishops who’ve spoken out in favor ofreevaluating the church’s position on condoms and the church’s growthin Asia, Africa and Latin America, the church will be virtually forcedto reconsider its stance.”

The charismatic John Paul neverpublicly addressed criticism of his anti-condom orthodoxy, choosinginstead to promote compassion for PWAs in frequent photo ops duringwhich he hugged children with HIV and pronounced, “God loves those ofyou who are suffering from AIDS.” The only coherent prevention policyhe advanced was one of abstinence. “John Paul II emphasized the virtueof restraint—that sexuality should be between a man and a woman in theinstitution of marriage,” says William Donohue, president of theconservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. On thisscore, JP was simply following the official Catholic playbook: the 1968encyclical Humanae Vitae, which trounces birth control.

Asrecently as October 2003, in a bizarrely inept attempt to counter thegrowing practice of condom acceptance by developing-world priestsalarmed at the spread of the disease, Latin American Cardinal AlfonsoLopez Trujillo, president of the pontifical council for the family,went so far as to suggest in a BBC documentary that “the AIDS virus isroughly 450 times smaller than the spermatozoon—the spermatozoon caneasily pass through the ‘net’ that is formed by the condom.” Suchdistortion of science has crept into President Bush’s ownabstinence-only prevention policies here and abroad.

While fewcritics openly place responsibility for such clumsy subterfuges at thefeet of the deeply learned and politically wily Ratzinger, as chiefchurch theorist, he has slammed homosexuality as “an objectivedisorder” and condoms as unreliable and morally unacceptable. Still,the hope for a policy change is more than latex-thin. The Catholic Fundfor Overseas Development (CAFOD), an international human-rights groupbased in England, as well as Western cardinals such as Belgium’sGodfried Danneels, have begun to argue that condoms might bepermissible if wearing them prevents an even greater evil: thetransmission of a lethal virus and, ultimately, the manslaughter of asexual partner. CAFOD, now operating in 64 countries, says it ignores“oversimplistic” solutions (implicitly, the Vatican’s). While it doesnot yet distribute condoms, it acknowledges that they are a necessarycomponent in combating AIDS. In January 2004, Danneels went so far asto say, “If a person infected with HIV has decided not to respectabstinence, then he has to protect his partner, and he can do that byusing a condom.” In previous years, such blasphemy might have ledRatzinger to silence Danneels, as he did many other men of the clothwho strayed from church doctrine.

Conservative and liberalCatholic activists are in general agreement that in the face of theglobal AIDS epidemic, the church risks losing all moral authority—andeven greater numbers of its fast-dwindling members and donors, at leastin the wealthy West—if it persists in its anti-condom creed. Dignity’sJeff Stone says that if Benedict doesn’t deliver, “HIVers need tofollow the highest authority—their own consciences—and make their ownjudgments after considering the church’s teachings.” Many already have.Catholic HIV positive blogger Andrew Sullivan withdrew from communion ayear and a half ago. “I find the church’s opposition to the use ofcondoms for HIV prevention deeply immoral. I couldn’t take it anylonger. But I still consider myself a Catholic—in exile.”