Once upon a time on Planet Earth — before the scourge of AIDS — the subject of condoms rarely came up in polite company.
Today, condoms have become the coin of the political realm, while debates break out in the politest of places — from the Vatican to the Senate to the pulpit to the pew.
In the past few days, reports from Rome have indicated that the Vatican is considering sanctioning the use of condoms among married couples when one of the partners is infected with AIDS.
This move, though not yet a done deal, has been heralded as revolutionary and as a sign of hope for AIDS sufferers, especially in Africa, where some 6,600 people die every day of the disease.
The Vatican has made clear that any endorsement of condom use to prevent the spread of disease should not be construed as a shift in doctrine regarding birth control. This highly technical exception, if approved, would be permitted only in the spirit of self-defense, not contraception.
That distinction already has been embraced by some Catholics closer to home, notably Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who have been pushing Congress to donate ever larger sums to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
In an amendment sponsored by the two men earlier this year, the Senate approved an additional $566 million in funding for the Global Fund, raising the total proposed allocation for fiscal year 2007 to $866 million.
While such expenditures are consistent with President George W. Bush's pledge to fight AIDS in Africa, they are nonetheless controversial in some quarters, specifically to Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who has been expressing disapproval and sending oblique threats to Santorum via the airwaves.
Why? Because the Global Fund distributes money to countries and organizations, including some faith-based ones, that in addition to distributing drugs to AIDS victims also distribute condoms — sometimes, possibly, to people who may use them for unapproved purposes, including prostitution.
But condom distribution is a minute part of the work the Global Fund provides for, which includes antiretrovirals to more than 384,000 AIDS victims, care for widows and orphans, and treatment of more than 1 million cases of TB.
Yet, in one of his radio broadcasts, Dobson used the word "wicked" to describe the Global Fund and to let Santorum know that he was on thin ice. Although he didn't name Santorum, you don't have to be Valerie Plame to figure out that the Pennsylvania senator was his target.
Excerpted here, he said:
"... I mean, that money is going to promote legalized prostitution and all kinds of wickedness around the world. And what has just happened in the Congress is that a deal was brokered ... some very prominent people, one of them a very conservative friend of mine, helped bring this about, along with very prominent Democrats."
Dobson promised to name names in a future broadcast if necessary to thwart funding of the Global Fund and warned listeners that bureaucrats couldn't be trusted with their money.
On a given day, I'd have to agree with Dobson on the latter point. Congress often spends money in ways we don't like (see Porkbusters.org). But I'm betting that money spent on whatever means necessary, including condoms, to stop the spread of AIDS isn't high on most lists.
We can also bet that Dobson's "very conservative friend" isn't Durbin but Santorum. No good deed goes unpunished, of course, and Santorum, who long has led the compassionate charge among conservatives, seems to be rich in enemies from both sides these days.
What this split among social conservatives portends for him politically will become clearer as the November elections approach, though Santorum recently has been rising in popularity in his home state. Last November, he was 16 percentage points behind his challenger, Pennsylvania Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. This week, a poll found him just six points behind Casey.
What is clear now is that Santorum puts his money where his principles are, rather than where he's likely to gain the most political traction.
While some may prefer the higher ideal of abstinence in fighting AIDS, even the Vatican seems to recognize that the lowdown reality demands something else. You can't change the hearts and minds of dead people.
Meanwhile, arguing to withhold help from people ravaged by disease because someone somewhere might have sex using a condom — now that's "wicked."