As a sex educator, I’ve been advocating for both risk reduction and harm reduction. In risk reduction, the goal is to lessen the chances that something unpleasant or dangerous might happen. When it comes to driving, for example, anti-lock brakes are risk reduction because they make it less likely that you’ll get into an accident. Condoms are also a form of risk reduction since they lower the odds of passing a sexually transmitted infection along.
By comparison, harm reduction is when you take steps to lessen the harm of whatever you’re going to do. Seatbelts reduce the harm of being in a car accident, for example. And getting regular STI tests makes it possible to get treatment sooner, which can reduce or avoid the harm that bacteria and viruses can cause.
Now, as I’m sure you know, the Pope and the Catholic Church have long been against any form of contraception or STI prevention. By their lights, the only acceptable goal of sex is to “be fruitful and multiply” (interestingly, that’s the first thing God tells people to do in the Old Testament), so using contraception would clearly go against that. In fact, the Pope said last year that distributing condoms in Africa would make the AIDS situation worse, presumably by encouraging people to have sex. This is a common argument among proponents of abstinence- giving people sexuality resources and information makes them go and do it, as if they’re not doing it anyway.
So it’s pretty radical for the Pope to have said that for some people, such as sex workers, using condoms is
This approach is what I would call a “sin reduction” model, although I suppose that’s splitting hairs since it’s really a harm reduction approach (if you assume that sex = sin = harm, a perspective I don’t share). And it’s actually a pretty big change, even if it’s a small step. The difference between 0 and 1 is often bigger than the difference between 50 and 51. And it can sometimes be bigger than the difference between 1 and 51, for that matter.
Does this signal a sea change for the Church? Is this an attempt to make Catholicism more welcoming and relevant to people in the 21st century, many of whom are leaving in order to find more welcoming religions? Lots of people are guessing, but for now, I’m just taking note of a very small, very first step by an organization that has been resisting movement in this direction for a long time.