The pope in Africa: Sex and Sensibility

Doing harm in places where Catholicism should have a bright future

AFRICANS always give a visiting pope a hearty welcome. Thousands of finely dressed Cameroonians danced and sang at the roadside this week as Pope Benedict XVI arrived on an inaugural African tour that will also take in Angola. The Vatican is keen on the continent, home to around 135m Catholics. Pope Benedict delivered a compassionate message, recognising that Africa suffers disproportionately from food shortages, poverty, financial turmoil and a changing climate. Yet for all the mutual appreciation, he got one matter painfully wrong.

The Economist

Asked about the use of condoms to help tackle the scourge of AIDS, the pope restated, in unusually explicit terms, the churchs position that these are not useful to “overcome” the epidemic, indeed their use actually makes the problem worse. He suggested the disease could be beaten through chastity, abstinence and “correct behaviour”. Speaking in a continent where more than 20m people have died from AIDS and another 22.5m are infected with HIV, his statement sounded otherworldly at best, and crass and uncaring at worst. Merely wishing away human sexual behaviour does nothing for the potential victims of AIDS, many of whom are innocent under even the most moralistic definition of that word.

Distributing more condoms would not, on its own, stop the spread of AIDS. Lots of measures are needed: improving education, encouraging monogamy, delaying the age of first sexual encounter, helping young women to win a greater say over their sex lives and widening access to antiretroviral drugs that lessen sufferers infectiousness. Male circumcision seems to limit the diseases spread. But giving people condoms can be particularly useful. Experience in Thailand, which snuffed out a rapid early increase of HIV, suggests that condom use, especially by prostitutes and their clients, is effective. The World Health Organisation points out that condoms, used properly, cut the chance of HIV infection by 90%.

Clever leaders matter too. Ugandas president, Yoweri Museveni, talked frankly and often about “ABC” habits-abstain, be faithful, use condoms-and saw levels of infection in his country fall. Leaders who deny the science or seriousness of the epidemic, or who are too squeamish to talk of condoms and sex, leave people confused and at great risk: Harvard researchers last year estimated that the approach of South Africas Thabo Mbeki had led to 330,000 needless deaths. Sadly, Pope Benedict has put himself squarely in the denial camp.

An ugly light
It need not be that way. Three years ago Pope Benedict was willing for his council for health to consider whether condom use would be a “lesser evil” than allowing the spread of a deadly virus. Liberal cardinals had suggested that in a marriage where one partner is infected, condoms should be permitted. In Africa, as elsewhere, many Catholics simply ignore the Vaticans view on condoms anyway.

The pope now seems immovable on the issue. His words on condoms and AIDS look particularly heartless in light of a scandal in Brazil that also casts the Catholic church in a poor light. An archbishop there excommunicated doctors for performing an abortion on a nine-year-old girl who had been raped repeatedly by her stepfather and made pregnant with twins. The girls mother was also expelled from the church; the rapist was not. The Vatican has made a partial retreat, criticising the haste with which the decision was made-and, eventually, the decision itself. In this and in its views on condom use to combat the spread of AIDS, the Vatican risks seeming callous to the plight of the weakest, surely those whom the church should strive hardest to protect.

Comments are closed.