With the Future of a Continent in His Hands, the Pope Fumbles

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With the Future of a Continent in His Hands, the Pope Fumbles

Kathleen Reeves

In the interest of orthodoxy, the Church is neglecting its humanitarian responsibility, particularly in Africa and other places where it holds sway.

Unlike in the United States, where secular, state-funded nonprofits make up a great deal of the AIDS movement, the Catholic Church is central to AIDS work in Africa. So unfortunately, unlike in the United States, what the Pope says about condom use has a very real effect on the course of the crisis in Africa.  

I’m trying to understand why the Catholic hierarchy, which is presumably educated about the AIDS crisis in Africa, would continue to insist that condom use is unacceptable. I know the church struggles with change. It’s an old institution, to say the least, and on certain issues—the “culture of life” among them—any adjustment could have far-reaching implications about its legitimacy.

The problem now is that in the interest of orthodoxy, the Church is neglecting its humanitarian responsibility, particularly in Africa and other places where it holds sway, like the Philippines. Two years ago, the UN went so far as to pin responsibility for Latin America’s rising epidemic on the Church. In these places, the Church doesn’t just shape attitudes, it funds relief work. And presumably, no Catholic relief worker can distribute condoms.  

Pope Benedict XVI first addressed the condom’s role in the AIDS crisis in 2006, when he requested a report from Vatican scientists and theologians on one particular circumstance: the use of condoms by a married couple when one person is HIV-positive. The announcement that the Pope was even considering the issue elicited cries of protest from conservative Catholics, including the head of D.C.’s Culture of Life foundation: "It’s just hard to imagine that any pope — and this pope — would change the teaching," he said.  

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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And today, some Catholic charities working in Africa appear to be concerned about the condom’s infiltration. Christine du Coudray, an official at the Aid to the Church in Need,

laments the fact that ACN seems to be almost alone in its efforts to promote the "Culture of Life" on this continent. Many agencies working in Africa promote a Western concept of the family that is no longer based on the community of husband, wife and children, instead promoting artificial contraception and abortion, and offering condoms as a solution to the spread of AIDS, she says, adding, "The Africans see these ideas as foreign. They understand at once that this is no culture of life but rather a culture of death."

The association of condoms with "a culture of death"  is pretty hard to take, and remarkably insensitive, considering what AIDS is doing to Africa. Furthermore, I can’t give much credence to the attempt to posit the condom as imperialist when it comes from a missionary. 

At least the Pope refrains from throwing “Western” taunts at AIDS workers. But he does say that condoms make the crisis worse—presumably because they don’t work. I can’t take this claim seriously, either—but many people with limited access to information and a higher regard for the Pope will.

The Pope acknowledges that something should be done to stop the spread of AIDS. His proposed solution is “a responsible and moral attitude toward sex.” The Church’s teaching on sex is as old as the Church itself, but the spread of AIDS, along with a few other clues, tells us that this teaching doesn’t work for people anywhere. At what point does Pope Benedict, having an extraordinary influence over the course of humanitarian work, start thinking like a Catholic human rather than a Catholic figurehead?  

The Pope seemed, at least two years ago, to be amenable to the condom, if only in a very specific circumstance. I wonder how he really feels about this. The AP points out that he’s in a tough position, politically:

On the plane, Benedict also dismissed the notion that he was facing increasing opposition and isolation within the church, particularly after an outreach to ultraconservatives that led to his lifting the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop.

I wish that the Catholic Church was free of the constraints that so often impede governments—the messy and sad trade-offs of national and international politics. But it’s clear that we can’t count on the Pope to take a daring stand on this issue. If Catholic workers on the ground believe that condoms distribution is part of a humane approach to the AIDS crisis, they need to make their voices heard. And in the meantime, God bless the nuns who’ve taken matters into their own hands:

Speaking at a UNAIDS press conference in London prior to the 2004 International AIDS Conference, Dr. Peter Piot, head of UNAIDS and himself a Catholic. . .described meeting Catholic nuns in southern Africa who were distributing condoms to women. When Dr. Piot asked them how they could distribute condoms in defiance of official Vatican teaching, one of the nuns replied "Rome is a long way away".

It is indeed. And it threatens, by its distance from the practical realities of the AIDS epidemic, to lose not only worldwide respect, but also the chance to save a continent.