During his recent visit to Africa, Pope Benedict happened to comment on one of the more innocuous dogmas of Roman Catholicism: Church policy regarding contraception. Following longstanding Catholic policy, he re-iterated the Church position that the use of condoms was unacceptable. While in the United States such a comment would simply be laughed off (most Catholics would not consider themselves highly immoral for simply using a condom), in Sub-Saharan Africa this comment, and the weight carried by virtue of the person who made it, is no laughing matter. It is, in fact, encouraging mass suicide.
Sub-Saharan Africa is currently being decimated by AIDS, although perhaps decimated is the wrong word since it simply means the death of every tenth person. The situation is far worse than that: there are twenty-two million people infected with HIV currently living in Sub-Saharan Africa, a number that amounts to two-thirds the global total. This rate is, if anything, increasing for various reasons: the dominant male culture in many of these societies which feels that wearing a condom is emasculating, the general poverty that forces many women into prostitution, and much disinformation being bandied about culminating in a population that is fairly ignorant about the virus and how it spreads.
Pope Benedict was quoted as saying that AIDS 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”. Quite understandably his ridiculous words have come under attack from multiple sources including those who have direct experience with the crisis. The idea that condoms could actually increase the global AIDS pandemic is so ludicrous that one could be forgive for suggesting that perhaps there was some error in translation or context.
The use of condoms in Sub-Saharan Africa would significantly stem the flood of new HIV cases; their use along with a comprehensive program of sexual education would do even more. Nobody has ever suggested that either money or condoms was the solution: as is almost always the case with any problem, education is the key to success. Naturally, abstinence will also help stem the tide (at least as far as the sexual transmission goes; for those who contract the disease by use of dirty syringes the issue of sex is irrelevant), but essentially encouraging Africans not to use condoms is ludicrous. Suggesting that they may actually be part of the problem is criminal.
Biologist PZ Myers perhaps said it best when, responding to the subsequent Papal comments about friendship and spirituality being key to combating AIDS: ‘Friendship’ won’t help the children of a woman dying slowly of AIDS, nor will gilt-robed old men whispering about ‘spirituality’ do one scrap of good against a dangerous reality.” What is needed in Africa right now is action and education: the use of condoms should be encouraged, not lied about in order to effect some archaic doctrine.
The Catholic Church seems determined to keep shooting itself in the foot lately: first, the story of the nine year old girl in Brazil whose abortion (procured because she was the victim of rape and incest) resulted in multiple excommunications, and now this. The Church seems all too keen on placing doctrine above the lives of its followers, no matter what the ultimate cost. In the case of African AIDS, the Pope’s comments, and the weight they will carry with members of his flock there, may well amount to millions more Africans slowly wasting away from the horrible symptoms of this dreaded disease. The civilized world should and indeed must speak out and condemn this dangerous bit of misinformation; if it does not, the blood of those who perish as a result will not just be on Benedict’s hands.