The Pope, condoms, AIDs prevention and a controversy

Cookie Boy

Pope Benedict XVI’s made his maiden trip to Cameroon and Angola in the African continent recently. What was a well-intentioned trip to deliver ‘a word of hope and comfort’, however, was marred by a gaffe about condoms and AIDs prevention.

The Head of the Catholic Church was quoted as having said that the distribution of condoms in Africa cannot overcome the problem of AIDS, but on the contrary aggravates the problem.  This slip-up comes on the heels of the Pope’s controversial decision in lifting  the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson who had made denials over the extent of the Holocaust.  This incident aside, Cookie Boy is left baffled and stumped by the Pope’s remarks on condoms.

Meanwhile, The Lancet, a well known British medical journal in its editorial had some harsh words for the Pope.  The journal acknowledged the Church’s moral stance and support towards marital fidelity and abstinence in HIV prevention. “But, by saying that condoms exacerbate the problem of HIV/AIDS,” it said, “the Pope has publicly distorted scientific evidence to promote Catholic doctrine on this issue.”

Yet to those ignorant of the Church’s teaching, Cookie Boy worries that the Pope’s comments might be taken out of context and risks undoing the efforts of medical and volunteer workers in curbing the spread of AIDS in Africa.    

To sum up the Church’s position on human life in just a few words: The Church is pro-life. Period!  No arguments!  No budging! 

The Humanae Vitae decries the use of any artificial methods to prevent procreation as ‘unlawful’ and ‘intrinsically wrong’ which include the use of condoms.  It states:

“Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come out of it.”

The condom here is the lesser of the two moral evils.

Church’s stand on prevention through condoms

But what is the Church’s moral and authority take about the use of condoms to prevent sexual disease?  There aren’t any that I know of.  Neither do I think it is stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  What I do know is that according to the Church’s teachings, fornication is sinful.  Any sexual activity outside the sanctity of marriage is considered wrong and sinful (and that includes having extra-marital affairs).  This translates to those happily married folks that, ‘Thou shalt not take any other partners besides thy spouse’; and for singles, this means a self-imposition of a sexual drought. 

Therefore there is no need for the Church to make an official moral stand on the use of condoms to combat sexual diseases when her stand is absolutely clear – abstinence, chastity and fidelity.  A man and woman who had never had intercourse with anyone prior to marriage, and who remain faithful to one another would therefore need no condoms to guard against sexual diseases.       

This view is largely utopian and as many critics will argue – far from reality.  Because we know that in reality, sex trade workers do exist!  Because in reality, people are still going to continue with their sexual activities!  Spouses will cheat.  Some people will continue with their promiscuous lifestyles.  No one is going to say: “Stop.  I think I shall abstain from sex!”   

Condom the “single, most efficient, available” preventive tool

A 2008 World Health Organisation Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic estimates 33 million people living with HIV, of which 22 million people are in the Sub-Saharan Africa region.  It is estimated that there are 190,000 and 540,000 HIV sufferers in Angola and Cameroon respectively.  In an ironical and stinging rebuff to the Pope’s comments, UNAIDS in its press release lists Cameroon as one of the countries most affected by HIV whereby “condom use is increasing for young people with multiple partners”.     

UNAIDS states:

“Condoms are an essential part of combination prevention which includes among other elements: access to information about HIV, access to treatment, harm reduction measures, waiting longer to become sexually active, being faithful, reducing multiple partners and concurrent relationships…”

UNAIDS, UNFRA and WHO also updated their information on condoms and HIV prevention in response to the Pope’s remarks.  They reiterate that “the male latex condom is the single, most efficient, available technology to reduce the sexual transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections” and will “remain the key preventive tool for many, many years to come”. 

The information also states:

“Conclusive evidence from extensive research among heterosexual couples in which one partner is infected with HIV shows that correct and consistent condom use significantly reduces the risk of HIV transmission from both men to women, and also from women to men.”

Manipulating science?

So how did Pope Benedict XVI get the facts so horribly wrong?  Perhaps it was just out of ignorance.  Didn’t the Pope learn how to pay more attention to information easily available on the internet since the Lefebvrite decision?  The Lancet in its editorial meanwhile wonders if this was a “deliberate attempt to manipulate science to support Catholic ideology”.

The Lancet’s position is clear.  It is braying for a mea culpa from Pope Benedict XVI for his comments.  The Pope is an influential religious leader and the statement which he made is contrary to scientific knowledge which could put the health of millions of people at risk.

The controversy is nothing new.  It isn’t the first time that the Catholic Church has been flogging this horse.  The late Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, President of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, said in an interview in a BBC Broadcast in 2003 that condoms don’t block the spread of AIDS.

The Catholic Church is in a quandary.  On one hand, the Church has to safeguard and uphold the dogmas and teachings that have been its cornerstone for 2000 years whilst fighting off relativism and secularism, yet at the same time she has to make herself relevant and humanely accessible to the people who essentially form the body of Christ – physically represented by the Church.  There is a clear need for a message of love and compassion, a need for solidarity manifested in practical action.  There had been some previous talk of reforms to change the Church’s stance on condoms.  But it looks likes the Pope’s recent comments have quashed all hopes.  But yet, as the Second Vatican Council has proven, anything is possible.    

Whether the Pope was right or wrong, one should not live under the fallacy that the condom is the only way to beat the spread of sexual diseases.  Yet there is no doubt that the condom is part of a bigger equation and must work with the other elements suggested by UNAIDS above to curb the spread of AIDS.