Breaking News: The Pope Thinks Catholicism is Swell

En route to the capital of Cameroon on Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the spread of HIV in Africa:

“You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms,” the pope told reporters aboard the Alitalia plane headed to Yaounde. “On the contrary, it increases the problem.”

The pope said that a responsible and moral attitude toward sex would help fight the disease.

This is where I’m supposed to insert my outrage and indignation at the Pope’s criminally negligent condemnation of artificial contraceptives.  Something about how he has the blood of thousands of Africans on his hands, perhaps?

But is that what the Pope really said?

Context is everything, and it seems that most media reports of the Pope’s words were decidedly out of context. Consider this more complete transcript from the Catholic News Service:

I would say that this problem of AIDS cannot be overcome with advertising slogans. If the soul is lacking, if Africans do not help one another, the scourge cannot be resolved by distributing condoms; quite the contrary, we risk worsening the problem. The solution can only come through a twofold commitment: firstly, the humanization of sexuality, in other words a spiritual and human renewal bringing a new way of behaving towards one another; and secondly, true friendship, above all with those who are suffering, a readiness – even through personal sacrifice – to be present with those who suffer. And these are the factors that help and bring visible progress.

Hey, wait a minute … the Pope thinks condoms won’t address the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa if people aren’t tending to their spiritual needs and being kind to one another? How dare he deliver this shocking defense of Catholic doctrine?

The Pope is no dummy.  He knows that AIDS has ravaged Africa and that in seven southern African countries, more than 15 percent of adults have HIV.  But will 15 percent of adults give up the right to have children if the Pope himself hands them a pack of Trojans?  Will a condom on every bedside table prevent the violent transmission of HIV through rape (another epidemic in the region)?  Of course not.

The Catholic Church does incredible work in Africa providing medical care to HIV patients and distributing anti-retroviral drugs.  Resolving the AIDS crisis will require a combination of money, research, education, medical care, counseling, social reform, and prophylactics. If the Roman Catholic Church provides most of those in abundance, does its leader really deserve our ire?


9 Responses to “Breaking News: The Pope Thinks Catholicism is Swell”

  1. Eclectic Radical on March 20th, 2009 1:21 pm

    Reliable medical science shows condoms have a tremendous effect on rates of AIDS transmission. Even in the context in which the larger quote places the pope’s comments, they are dubious at best. I understand that the pope is not always addressing quite the same concerns as secular speakers might in the same circumstances. Nor do I disagree that the specific reason for the pandemic in Africa is not something that condoms will ‘solve.’

    However, condoms reduce the spread of HIV drastically. People need to know that in such a crisis situation. Minimizing the good that can be done is foolish and irresponsible. The pope did not have to praise condoms or call for wider condom distribution, but he did not have to go out of his way to deliver an unlicensed medical opinion either. Without the comment about condoms, his speech is noble and high-minded. With it, it is supercilious and dismissive. The context of the speech my affect the chosen quote, but the chosen quote also affects the context of the speech. Read the same excerpt of the speech without the gratuitous reference to condoms and you will see what I mean, I believe.

    No one is talking about asking people to ‘give up their right to have children.’ Nor is anyone saying that condoms can address the problem of rape. People are addressing the impact that condoms do have on the problem of the spread of HIV. People are not angry because the pope challenged people to be kind to one another and minister to their spiritual needs. People are angry because, while doing so, the pope gratuitously derided part of the real, practical, proven method of dealing with the problem as irrelevant at best and aggravating at worst.

    I think the circumstances do call for a certain amount of ire. The pope chose to make a political and dogmatic statement about condoms at the expense of a speech delivering a message of the need for more Christians to live the Christ-like life to which the Bible calls them. Doing so undermined his message. Not precisely a successful defense of Catholic doctrine.

  2. Rob Taylor on March 20th, 2009 3:15 pm

    Condoms reduce the spread of AIDs in safe situations where consenting adults take the time to ensure the condoms don’t break etc. Rape is endemic in Aftica’s high AIDS rate areas. The Congo, South Africa and the Sudan all are inflicted with what amounts to rape gangs. In SA they’re raping Lesbians to “cure them” of Homosexuality, which is a step up from a couple of years ago when they were raping infants to cure them of AIDS.

    Condoms won’t be used by rapists, certainly not when oral rape is happening. The Pope is actually right, the only way to reverse the AIDS rate in Africa would be if some of you White folk who supported giving power to Marxist/Nationalist governments in the cause of “equality” spent a little more time ensuring the African people didn’t suffer under the barbarians (like South Africa’s ANC) you helped put in power.

    In other words, Eclectic Progressive. It’s your fault.

  3. Jenn Q. Public on March 20th, 2009 4:03 pm

    Eclectic Radical, I think we agree on way more than you think in this case. I’m all for condoms, and I don’t doubt the impact they have as part of a larger program of education, research, etc.

    But the way I read the complete quote, the Pope (being all Catholic like he is) merely suggested that people look first at their spiritual and social ills. I don’t think saying “we risk worsening the problem” was an “unlicensed medical opinion.” Rather, it was the Pope’s observation that if people don’t address matters of the soul and social unrest, 1,000 truckloads of condoms won’t stop the spiritual decay and resulting societal ills. Fairly standard Catholic boilerplate, I think.

    Here’s another point I didn’t go into in my post. Why is it that when Westerners hear the Pope make a statement on condoms, so many assume that the simpletons in Africa will immediately internalize anything he says (while us sophisticated Americans can feel free to ignore him)? The people in SSA aren’t receiving condoms and stubbornly turning them into balloon animals to honor the teachings of Pope Benedict. They are as free to accept or reject the Pope’s words as anyone else in the Catholic flock.

  4. Jenn Q. Public on March 20th, 2009 4:12 pm

    Rob, those corrective rape stories make my blood boil. Barack Obama needs to explore every avenue, including military force and economic sanctions, to halt the civil unrest, religious wars, slavery, and human suffering taking place in Africa (if he isn’t too busy playing footsie with Leno.)

  5. Eclectic Radical on March 21st, 2009 1:42 am

    Actually, Jenn, I think I figured we agreed on a lot of that before you told me. Not to be a smart-ass or anything, but the tone of your writing suggested you had actually thought about it before wringing it and (with all due respect to your fellow Republicans) most of the people who disagree don’t think about it much before they write. :)

    My concern is that the complete quote reads that way to me if one leaves the condom comment out entirely. But the condom comment reads as an entirely gratuitous nod to dogma at a moment when such a gratuitous dogmatic reference was not in the best spirit of Christianity. I do understand where you are coming from and certainly don’t expect the pope NOT to be Catholic, but I considered the reference to be a gaffe in the best light and worthy of some rebuke even then. I also think it is terribly dangerous thing to even tip-toe around the phrase ‘condoms don’t stop the spread of AIDS’ or related statements in Africa.

    Now, as for how the people in Africa accept or reject the pope’s words, I don’t want to make assumptions. I am giving my opinion on his words, not the potential reaction to them. However, since you brought it up, I will mention a few issues in that regard.

    South Africa had a president who denied the link between HIV and AIDS and appointed a health minister who told AIDS patients to treat the disease with peppers and garlic. The president of Botswana has cooperated the Bush administration’s attempts to force abstinence-only programs on foreign nations. I am NOT saying that all Africans are in the same league as these three, but there is clearly some history of reason to be concerned about the manner in which African governments address the problem. The pope’s comments do have the potential to aggravate the problems such people already cause, by encouraging them in their misconceptions.

    I agree with you and Rob about the issue of rape and about Africa’s social problems, and I don’t think it was wrong for the pope to address those problems. I think it was wrong for the pope to address those problems in a manner specifically linked to condoms, all in one breath.

    Does all of that make any sense?

  6. Jenn Q. Public on March 23rd, 2009 2:52 pm

    Eclectic, I completely understand where you’re coming from and to be honest, I originally started this post as a condemnation of the Pope’s statement. I have an unfortunate inclination to assume the worst about the teachings and leadership of organized religion, having been raised by a father who was radically anti-religion to the point of bigotry. To counter that upbringing, I try to be especially sensitive to issues of faith, but trust me, I’m more than willing to harshly criticize religious figures when necessary.

    That said, I think each of us is just hearing the same song in a different pitch. For me, the key words are “If the soul is lacking, if Africans do not help one another” with particular emphasis on the “ifs.” Without that opening bit, the Pope is indisputably factually wrong. But with that segment, I read the statement to say that focusing on condom distribution to the exclusion of spiritual and social needs will not fix things, and might possibly make matters worse.

    It’s unfortunate that the interview wasn’t in English and isn’t available on tape – then we might have more clarity. I guess the real issue at this point is that the Pope’s statement was unclear enough that intelligent people are debating his meaning, and that is not in the best interest of the Catholic Church or the people of Africa. I won’t hold my breath waiting for the Vatican to issue a clarification.

    By the way, I remember the news about the South African president. Was that the same guy accused of raping an HIV positive AIDS activist?

    Regarding Bush (and generally speaking I’m no Bush apologist), his caveat that 1/3 of AIDS prevention funding be spent on abstinence was a limit I didn’t support, but I think it’s unfair to say that PEPFAR forced abstinence-only programs on other countries. The PEPFAR strategy is tailored to the unique sociocultural and epidemiological profile of each region, so sometimes more emphasis is placed on abstinence, sometimes on condoms, and sometimes on fidelity and monogamy. Even though the Botswana program emphasized abstinence first, the USG provided that country with well over 17 million condoms between 2004 and 2008. The U.S. directs impressive amounts of money toward international AIDS programs – hopefully we can continue to do so.

  7. Eclectic Radical on March 24th, 2009 12:35 am

    I am putting the last first because I think it is extremely important to be clear about it: PEPFAR specifically tied all other aid to abstinence programs, mandating a specific portion of the money to be spent on them, as you yourself said. Such an exact and stringent requirement to get any money at all is, to my mind, ‘forcing’ abstinence programs. I specifically mentioned Botswana because of their president’s aggressive pursuit of abstinence programs to the detriment of other programs and his avid cooperation with the religious right. Even now, while programs to provide condoms are now up and running, the government is focusing on abstinence in a manner that makes gaining access to other programs a more prolonged process than it should be.

    I certainly don’t advocate LESS spending on African AIDS aid. I’m a fringe leftist far more liberal than my own party, I don’t want to spend LESS money on anything. Silly. ;)

    That out of the way, the Vatican did try to ‘clarify’ the pope’s remarks when they first drew fire. Their ‘clarification’ would support your view, but while I do not disagree entirely with your statements I still maintain it would have been best for the pope to leave condoms out entirely if he wished to focus on the spiritual side of the equation. No one expects the pope (at least not this pope) to endorse condoms unequivocally, and I don’t even demand that he endorse them more equivocally. That doesn’t mean I think he should include them in statements in a manner that is far too dismissive (as his statement reads to me) of their benefits. And I agree entirely with your assessment of the poor service that the confusion over his meaning does both Africa and the Church.

    I don’t remember if the president of South Africa or his health minister was accused of raping the AIDS activist, but I do believe it was one of the two, yes. I am in no way trying to make general assumptions about all Africans based on the political leadership of Botswana and the former political leadership of South Africa, but I do think noting both is important in any discussion of just how Africans will react to the pope’s words: there is clearly a significant cognitive dissonance about AIDS among some Africans and African leaders and the pope’s speech did nothing to improve it.

    I do think we agree on more than we disagree on these issues, just as you said, and if I am focusing on our disagreements it is merely because that makes discussions more interesting. Particularly if anything practical were to come from the thoughts resulting from our disagreements. :)

  8. Jenn Q. Public on March 24th, 2009 1:40 am

    I see an important distinction between abstinence programs that are part of a larger strategy, and abstinence-only programs, but I agree that the government in Botswana is not doing enough to promote barrier methods of prevention.

    Re: aid to Africa, I know you don’t advocate spending less money on AIDS and neither do I, provided the money is yielding results. I’m just concerned that USG aid will dwindle as our deficit balloons and private charitable aid will be reduced by the economic downturn and Obama’s proposed cap on deductions.

    I’m torn between finding our discussions interesting and feeling that they’re an exercise in futility, but it’s always fun to have a new arch-frenemy.

  9. Eclectic Radical on March 24th, 2009 2:24 am

    I don’t really see a distinction between ‘abstinence’ programs and ‘abstinence only’ programs.. certainly not if aid is specifically tied to abstinence programs in a manner that promotes them over (I’ll be blunt) more effective methods. And of course, the idea of ‘teaching abstinence’ somewhat jars against my libertarian recidivism.

    I share your concerns about the economy’s effect on African aid. I have to concede that it is inevitable it WILL have some effect. Honestly, I’d rather we cut other foreign aid programs (such as economic incentives for China, as I think it’s kind of silly to pay foreign aid to a country whose economy is healthier than ours) before cutting African aid.

    I don’t think genuine dialogue is ever truly futile, but then I am told I am a hopeless dreamer anyway. Let’s hope I’m right, despite that.

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