Thursday, 19 March 2009

The Pope and Africa

After Pope Benedict XVI's latest public comments regarding HIV/AIDS, several (including myself, though not yet publicly) have been quick to criticise the thoughts of the man. For an alternative view, see here. Just for reference, he said that AIDS in Africa is:

"a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems."

Where to begin? I guess with some facts.

  • Africa is the area of the world most affected by HIV and AIDS, to the tune of 24 million people (for reference, that's nearly 5 times the population of Scotland).
  • Catholicism in Africa has, since 1900, risen by a staggering 670%, from 1.9m to 139m followers.
So, there's an issue there. On the one hand, aid agencies etc are passing out condoms, telling people in Africa that if they are having sex they must use them or are in danger of contracting the virus. On the other, the Pope and Catholic missionaries, who have forever preached abstinence outside marriage and that contraception is tantamount to abortion. You see the difficulty. When the man styled as God's representative on Earth tells you you can't do something, pretty sure 139 million people are going to listen.

But the problem with the Pope's approach to sex is not that abstinence is not a good weapon in the battle against AIDS and HIV (if you don't have sex, you won't contract the disease that way). And this is the theological part. It appears that His Holiness does not recognise the inherent flaw in his own theology - the human condition.

For centuries, Christianity has preached the weakness, the vulnerability of man. Abstinence works, yes, as weapon in the battle. But it fails far more often in the shape of human weakness. And you simply have to look at the number of Catholic Priests involved in sex scandals to realise that Catholicism is not immune to this weakness.

The Pope and the Catholic Church must face a new reality. There must recognise the power and responsibility of the position of the Pope. They must also recognise the global challenges that face us - AIDS in Africa and, to the same extent, environmental degradation. And they must recognise that they are in a position to help influence not only decision-making in those fields but also action.

Until then, we can only expect the problem to worsen.


Mark 19 March 2009 at 21:19  

But Condoms are not reliable! Leave aside the theological concern that they stop the procreative act, they simply do not address the root cause of HIV infection. There is some logic in abstinence!

Malc 19 March 2009 at 22:19  


Most types of condoms are 98% effective in preventing either pregnancy or STIs.

I'd suggest that is 98% more effective than not wearing one.

Look, I undertand the theological concern in that Catholicism believes that life begins at conception etc. I do. And the logic of abstinence is right.

Except that telling people not to have sex isn't really going to work. Because, whether you want to think so or not, people are going to want to have sex. Telling people not to isn't going to stop them.

Mark 20 March 2009 at 06:43  

Hi Malc,

I actually heard another figure about condom reliability, that is closer to 78%. Maybe they are 98% reliable if properly used, and 78% otherwise. I don't know. I would have to check and don't know where.

The theological issue is slightly more complicated, viz., it's not just that life begins at conception, but that the use of a condom, or any other prophylaptic, is objectively sinful because it halts, in a premeditated way, the possibility of creation of life which is a result of the sexual act (and face it, the primary result).

Anyway, that aside, I think there is a bigger moral issue here. Someone, I think it was in the UK, was recently convicted of knowingly infecting his partners with HIV. Condoms, even if they are reliable, only mask that, or skirt around the moral responsibility that sexual partners have. Last year over 300 Scottish "older children" (13-15 year olds) were infected with STIs. Asides from the fact that they were all likely committing illegal acts, again I feel it's the same issue. If someone doesn't know their HIV status and has reason not to assume it is negative, he or she should be tested. And if they are positive and assume that the condom's going to work... yowzers, time for a disaster.

Do you see what I'm getting at? Sorry if it's a bit incoherent, but it's first thing in the morning for me. I think the big crux of it for me is moral responsibility for the consequences of the sexual act. I'll put it another way: if one is responsible, knows one's HIV status, doesn't sleep around, watches one's partner's fertile cycles, etc., then 'no-condom' would be as successful as condoms in preventing pregnancy...

Re telling them not to do it, surely they won't listen to the Pope when he tells them not to use condoms? Bad logic... I suppose we do tell people not to do things and they do them anyway; I am thinking the problems with underage sex, etc. Anyway, I need to go to work...

PJ 20 March 2009 at 10:33  

I can’t begin to express my disappointment at the Pope’s stance on this particular issue because, apart from being at polar opposites with my own viewpoint, I fear he has done far more harm than good. I can think of few other mortal beings that have as much power to influence the behaviour and fears of the World’s population as he possesses.

There is no question that abstinence is the perfect solution to preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS, it would be a perfect solution in a perfect world. We do not live in a perfect world. Our solutions must be relevant to the realities of our flawed and fractured societies and cultures, and in step with the advances of scientific and medical research. When religious ideologies appear disconnected from these realities it completely undermines their relevance. One of the biggest challenges to Christianity is whether it has relevance in a modern world and society. I wholeheartedly believe that it does but in my circle of acquaintances I am sadly in the minority.

I can see no constructive outcome from the Pope’s statement. I can only imagine the exasperation of those who work in the frontline of the battle against AIDS that they now also have to battle against the Catholic Church. So many wars have been started and fought in the name of religion; if the Pope’s teachings were followed to the letter the war against AIDS could be lost because of it.

Mark 20 March 2009 at 17:34  

Waitaminute... think about it: if the Church's teachings and the Pope's teachings (one and the same) were followed to the letter the transmission of HIV by sexual means would be eliminated.

Half the problem of condoms is that they allow for sexual proclivity with impugnity. We can have sex and not worry about babies, not worry about STIs and STDs... that is, until they don't work. Or they're forgotten. What does that say about the moral responsibility of man!?

Mac McLernon 20 March 2009 at 18:33  

Condoms are NOT 98% effective. The Pill is only just 97% effective, assuming it is taken at the correct time each day (the dose has had to be reduced, due to increased understanding of side-effects) and condoms have a 10% failure rate even when used correctly (figures accepted by the manufacturers themselves) with spermicidal jelly.

HIV does not get affected by spermicidal jelly, but we'll let that pass and just accept the 10% figure.

That's a 1 in 10 chance of failure.

Would you travel in a plane if the company said "Oh, by the way, one out of every 10 planes crashes"?

The Director of the HIV Prevention Research Project has had to acknowledge that the Pope is right. Check out the Harvard website HERE

Dr. Green said: "We have found no consistent associations between condom use and lower HIV-infection rates, which, 25 years into the pandemic, we should be seeing if this intervention was working."

Malc 23 March 2009 at 08:41  

Okay, I take that 98% might not be accurate (I just googled condom efficiency and got 98% but maybe 90% is closer). But to compare that to travelling on a plane is wrong.

The point is not that they are 10% inefficient, but that they are 90% more efficient than not wearing one. As I said to Mark before (and as PJ points out) abstinence is an ideal solution for an ideal world. But given that is not the world we live in.

I do see what you (and indeed the Pope) are saying. But I don't think it is a helpful thing to say.

Richard 23 March 2009 at 15:33  

If anyone were to try to follow the church's/pope's teachings to the letter, they would end up thoroughly confused at so many contradictory instructions. Not to mention that they'd probably be locked up as a psychopath.

Yes, condoms aren't foolproof, but they're better than nothing. Yes, Abstinence is 100% effective (unless your name's Mary and you live in Nazareth), but it's also impractical. The fact is that, while imperfect, they are both equally valid weapons in the fight against AIDS/HIV. The best weapon, and one which can use both of the above, is Education. Why can't the Pope use some of his money to build schools, instead of preying on the fears of the poor, ignorant folks who don't know any better?

Another point to consider - picture yourself living in some of these countries - are you really going to be bothered about a disease which could kill you in a few years, when a bullet could do it tomorrow? Or hunger next week? Why not have a quick f***?

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