When, speaking to journalists about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa, you make a claim that the epidemic is:
a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which can even increase the problem
those listening who assume you are committed to honesty (because of that commandment about not bearing false witness) and that you are well-informed about the current state of our epidemiological knowledge (because, as the Pope, you have many advisors, and owing to your importance as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, leading scientists will take the time to help you understand scientific findings) may draw the conclusion that the distribution and use of condoms can make the spread of HIV worse.
In fact, the World Health Organization notes that
The evidence around use of male condoms to prevent HIV transmission is that latex condoms if used consistently and correctly are highly effective in preventing the transmission of HIV. They are not the only important prevention strategy but they are an important component of comprehensive prevention efforts worldwide in association with other interventions. Importantly, there is no scientific evidence that promoting the correct and consistent use of condoms has led to alterations in sexual behaviour or increased risk taking.
If you were not aware of these scientific conclusions when you spoke, the best ethical course at this point would be to correct your earlier claim that condom distribution and use could make the HIV/AIDS epidemic worse. To avoid future such errors, you may want to consider the extent to which your visibility and credibility as a world religious leader obligates you to consult reliable sources of scientific information before you make public statements on scientific matters.
If you were aware of these scientific conclusions when you spoke, the best ethical course at this point would be to correct your earlier claim that condom distribution and use could make the HIV/AIDS epidemic worse. There is probably also some work you need to do on the bearing false witness thing. Part of that is between you and your God, but part of that may involve apologizing to those who were trusting you to be honest and making serious efforts to win back their trust.
In either case, undoubtedly you are now aware that the scientific research contradicts your statement. Given this awareness — and the importance many members of the public give to your claims — you now have an obligation to acknowledge the contradiction between your claim and the scientific evidence. As the editors of The Lancet put it:
When any influential person, be it a religious or political leader, makes a false scientific statement that could be devastating to the health of millions of people, they should retract or correct the public record. Anything less from Pope Benedict would be an immense disservice to the public and health advocates, including many thousands of Catholics, who work tirelessly to try and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS worldwide.
Acknowledging that the scientific evidence is what it is is a matter of honesty. This is a distinct question from whether condom use is a good thing from the point of view of Catholic doctrine. The Church can still advise Catholics about their spiritual health without making misleading claims about factors influencing humans’ bodily health.
However, using lies or inaccurate claims as a way to manipulate people into accepting Catholic doctrine on condoms risks both bodily and spiritual health. Moreover, it undermines public trust and sullies the office of Pope, likely making the job harder for the next guy who has to do it.
So, Pope Benedict, I urge you to do the ethical thing, to set the record straight on what the scientific evidence says about condoms, and to make your spiritual case against condoms on strictly spiritual grounds.