Thursday, 19 March 2009

A Pope with nerves of steel

Yet again, the Holy Father has become the object of worldwide media outrage. Replying to questions from journalists during his flight to Cameroon, the Holy Father's answer was asked about the Catholic Church's approach to HIV/AIDS, "considered by some as unrealistic and ineffective." The Vatican Information Service gives his reply as follows:
"It is my belief believe that the most effective presence on the front in the battle against HIV/AIDS is in fact the Catholic Church and her institutions. ... The problem of HIV/AIDS cannot be overcome with mere 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 humanisation 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 the suffering, a readiness - even through personal sacrifice - to stand by those who suffer."
Damian Thompson (Holy Smoke) and Thomas Peters (American Papist) have called attention to what might have been an attempt to soften the Holy Father's words in the "official" account. As they point out with justified exasperation, you just can't do that. For such a high profile press event, there will be shorthand transcripts and video files just waiting to be put out to prove just exactly what he did say.

Perhaps the most determinedly anti-papal newspaper on this issue has been the Times which ran four pieces yesterday attacking the Holy Father, saying, for example "The Pope's statement about condoms is a threat to public health"; "when the ultra-conservative head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was elected Pope all hopes of change vanished."; "The Vatican, in pursuit of its myopic obsession and desire to control sexuality", and headlining a "news" article "Pope’s attack on condoms sickens Aids campaigners." there is some good comment on this onslaught by Diogenes (Off the Record). Diogenes also has a satirical piece urging African wife-beaters to don leather bag-mitts as a risk-reduction measure.

I think the point is well made. Nobody believes that condoms are 100% safe. When the question is asked of an individual case "Would it be right to use a condom to prevent death?" One could reply that it would certainly be right, for example, to inflate a condom in an effort to save someone's life by helping them to stay afloat after being shipwrecked. But shipwreck is not normally a voluntary activity. If there is an outbreak of compulsive shipwrecking and someone said that the shipwreckers should be taught to stay away from ships, you would not accuse them of endangering lives because they did not consider it wise to encourage them to carry inflatables with them when puncturing the hull.

Sexual activity is something that we can choose to do or not. If engaging in sexual relations with one's wife, friend, partner or a casual stranger carries a significant risk of killing them, it is not an answer to say that we should reduce the risk of that happening by using a condom when the risk can be eliminated by not engaging in sexual relations.

The argument about HIV/AIDS and condoms is not about microscopic pores in the condom. The fact is that in countries that have relied on promoting abstinence and faithfulness, there has been a measurable decrease in the incidence of HIV/AIDS; in countries which have relied on promoting condom use there has been an increase. There are probably various factors involved but if anyone is threatening public health it is not the Pope.

One good piece in the press yesterday was Anthony McCarthy's article in the Telegraph:The Pope's critics are in the grip of dogma.
My own page on AIDS, Condoms and the Catholic Church has links to various articles as well as to my own paper on the subject. I am glad to report also that the Bishops Conference of England and Wales has a page on Pope Benedict in Cameroon and Angola with some useful links on the question.

Were he a politician, I am sure that the Holy Father would have been advised to keep quiet about AIDS and condoms, to evade the question or simply to emphasise the positive work that the Church does, such as that one of every four AIDS patients in the world is treated in a Catholic centre. In the spirit of martyrdom, the successor of St Peter chose not to take the easy path but to speak the truth boldly. At a time when he has been recently subjected to sustained assaults in the world's media, his courage and determination are an inspiring example of genuine love for the suffering.
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