When Pope Benedict XVI made his first pastoral tour of Africa this year, he said so many important things, but only one stood out: his emphatic statement that condoms are no solution to the AIDS endemic. Then followed harsh criticism from a host of HIV activists the world over. His message, however, was not about his infallibility but the ethics and the Christian faith he professes; it was, and still is, about his office. And with scientific findings saying condom use does not give 100 percent protection against HIV infection, no one expects the Pope to change his stance. So, who – between actvicts and the Church – won the condom debate? Follow this author.
THERE are few things that the world expected and never achieved in Pope Benedict XVI’s first tour of Africa a few months ago.
Some people thought he would come up with a rebellious statement against the Catholic Church’s traditional stance on the use of condoms in fighting HIV. Even after he said ‘you cannot resolve AIDS with condoms… on the contrary, it increases the problem,’ others expected him to give scientific back up of his statement. Yet he gave a spiritual and moral principle.
AIDS activists have since attacked him for his ‘irresponsible, unscientific and ignorant’ remarks regarding condoms. The Lancet, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world, even went further and called for a recant from the Pope for ‘distorting science.’
A similar reaction came from the Belgian parliament, which condemned the pope’s comments as ‘unacceptable;’ it also demanded a Vatican apology – which the Church also rejected. One thing appears certain. While Christians, particularly Catholics, may claim to be united behind the Pope, AIDS activists of all denominations appear united behind a condom.
Perhaps now than ever before, Pope Benedict XVI has proved himself to be more of a spiritual than a scientific figure – a disappointment to those seeking scientific evidence from the Pontiff.
HIV in Africa, condom effectiveness
UNAIDS statistics show that Africa is the most hit continent, with about 22 million people currently living with HIV. Over 25 million people have died in three decades. And three quarters of the HIV deaths worldwide have been reported in Sub-Saharan Africa.
But AIDS activists claim the death toll would have been higher without strong condom campaigns. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), condoms are highly effective when used correctly and consistently.
With scientific indication that despite their effectiveness condoms are not 100 percent safe, the emphasis has always been on correctness (coupled with consistence) in condom use. The campaign, of course, has not been confined to condom use but it includes advice on sexual abstinence and fidelity to one partner.
Interestingly, at the 12th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections held in Boston, Massachusetts four years ago, researchers from Uganda presented findings, ‘Decline in HIV Prevalence in Uganda: Not as simple as ABC,’ claiming condoms have been more effective than abstinence in curbing the spread of HIV.
Uganda is one of Africa’s earliest HIV victims and one that had been among the most hit countries in the last decade, but which has improved significantly to become a model of the continent due to increased campaign on abstinence, being faithful to one partner, and condom use (ABC).
The Church’s message
The message that normally goes with the ABC campaign contains what the Church cannot stand or defend. Advice on sexual activities that do not involve intercourse and on fidelity to one uninfected partner would augur well with the Church’s position if that other partner was a legal husband or wife.
The consistence or correctness in the use of condom has no place in the Church’s teachings because condoms are a contraceptive, the use of which, from the church’s point of view, undermines a person’s spiritual and human dignity.
With all the activists’ attacks on the Pope for making ‘irresponsible’ remarks about condoms, the Pontiff’s message would be reflected by the Church’s emphasis, as issued by the Vatican recently, on responsible moral attitude towards sex.
According to the Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi, ‘the focus on condoms does not strengthen personal responsibility.’ And what the Pope was conveying to Africa was about defending the rights of the poor, protecting essential values of African families; and defending the nature, dignity and role of marriage.
The Church and Africa
A few years before his death, Pope John Paul II said the future of the Church would be in Africa, which had historically become a refuge for infant Jesus Christ when Herod sought to kill him. Optimistic about the strong Christian roots on the continent and its impact to the future, he said, “The Church in Africa is a missionary Church and a mission Church”.
It is evident that his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, was partaking this missionary endeavour. Christianity is on the rise in Africa as it declines in some parts of the world, particularly Europe. Leading over one billion Catholics worldwide, the Pope knows the impact of his message and its particular weight to Africa with about 150 million believers. Apart from Catholics, other Christian denominations in the world share his views on condoms use in HIV campaign. Even some Muslim groups challenge condom use on grounds that it encourages immorality and sin.
Scientific or moral battle
Scientific researches irrefutably vindicate HIV activist’s position on the positive impact of correct and constant condom use. The challenge, however, remains on accessibility, affordability and usability of condoms in poor societies. In certain climates, storage of condoms in proper places and at convenient temperature poses a much greater problem and higher risk among condom users.
And while Christians preach abstinence and fidelity as the best weapons against HIV infection, activists argue that Christians make a chunk of condom users, posing a much higher challenge to the Church.
Scientific or moral, Christian or otherwise, clergy or lay, some people cannot abstain. Others are more prone to infidelity. And they are not likely to risk twice if they are convinced about the effectiveness of condoms.
Activists are right, the Pope is right
Backed up by science, HIV activists are right in insisting on the proper use of condoms, but they are wrong is suggesting the Pope should abandon his doctrinal emphasis to adopt their approach. Christians would not expect the Pope to betray the values he is supposed to profess, preach and defend; especially during times when Christianity is becoming less and less popular, spirituality is a thing of the past, moral standards are becoming an obsolete phenomenon, sex is becoming more and more popular among youth and the dignity of marriage is being eroded.
This is a community of people united behind condoms, and the moment he bows out to them, he ceases being Pope. As the newly appointed Westminster Archbishop Vincent Nichols puts it, faith and public life are inseparable. And if the Church wants to be what it should be, this is the message it has to convey in meeting public challenges.
In the world of non-believers, liberal thinkers and scientific enthusiasts, science is set to challenge faith even among the Pope’s loyal audiences. Some of them want him to offer scientific evidence to back up his public statement. In Yaounde, Cameroon, he stood for spiritual and moral defense of the traditional Christian view of human dignity. No winners, no losers.