May all the joy and peace that our Lord’s birth brings be yours at Christmas and throughout 2011.
As I considered what to write for the December Chronicle, the recent controversy regarding Pope Benedict’s remarks about condoms immediately came to mind. I had to ask myself whether this was really an appropriate topic just before Christmas. However, today we cannot afford to look at Christmas in an overly sentimentalized way, stripping it of its power to change the world through the conversion of human hearts to the truth and love made flesh in Jesus Christ. What Christmas teaches us about life and love embraces every aspect of human existence, including sexuality and the crisis of AIDS, which is a moral crisis as much as a medical one.
In 2009 Pope Benedict made the claim that condom distribution is not helping, and may actually be worsening, the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa. Now in 2010, he reaffirmed this claim in a recent book interview in which he repeats what he has said in the past, namely, that condoms are not the answer morally or otherwise to the scourge of AIDS.
In the interview the pope also said that the use of a condom by a prostitute with AIDS might represent a first step toward his or her moral awakening, toward a realization that the other person matters. In the context of all that the pope has said and continues to say about AIDS and condoms, there is no basis for asserting that either the pope or the church has changed Catholic teaching. All the pope did was to express a hope that maybe in the hypothetical situation he describes the use of a condom might be the first stirring of a conscience on the long road to conversion.
Let us look at the whole issue of condoms on the basis of facts. After Pope Benedict was roundly condemned, ridiculed and censored for what he said in 2009, the Washington Post published an op-ed piece by Professor Edward Green of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at Harvard University and author of a monumental study on the AIDS situation in Uganda. His op-ed piece, titled “The Pope May Be Right,” provided the following information:
“In 2003, Norman Hearst and Sanny Chen of the University of California conducted a condom effectiveness study for the United Nations’ AIDS program and found no evidence of condoms working as a primary HIV-prevention measure in Africa. UNAIDS quietly disowned the study. (The authors eventually managed to publish their findings in the quarterly Studies in Family Planning.) Since then, major articles in other peer-reviewed journals such as the Lancet, Science and BMJ have confirmed that condoms have not worked as a primary intervention in the population-wide epidemics of Africa. In a 2008 article in Science called ‘Reassessing HIV Prevention,’ 10 AIDS experts concluded that ‘consistent condom use has not reached a sufficiently high level, even after many years of widespread and often aggressive promotion, to produce a measurable slowing of new infections in the generalized epidemics of Sub-Saharan Africa.’ ”
Some might argue that it is precisely the Catholic Church that is an obstacle to “consistent condom use … [at] a sufficiently high level.” But as Professor Green says in a newly-published book: “In fact, [condom use] might actually contribute to higher levels of infection because of the phenomenon of risk compensation, whereby people take greater sexual risks because they feel safer than they really ought to because they are using condoms at least some of the time.” (Affirming Love, Avoiding Aids, The National Catholic Bioethics Center, 2010)
If the real goal is AIDS prevention, consider the following findings of A. Abboud, an Australian bioethicist, writing in the British Medical Journal:
“A regression analysis done on the HIV situation in Africa indicates that the greater the percentage of Catholics in any country, the lower the levels of HIV. If the Catholic Church is promoting a message about HIV in those countries it seems to be working. On the basis of the data from the World Health Organization, in Swaziland where 42.6 percent have HIV, only 5 percent of the population is Catholic. In Botswana, where 37 percent of the adult population is HIV infected, only 4 percent of the population is Catholic. In South Africa, 22 percent of the population is HIV infected, and only 6 percent is Catholic. In Uganda, with 43 percent of the population Catholic, the proportion of HIV infected adults is 4 percent. A concerted campaign, also in medical journals, has been under way after the death of Pope John Paul II to attribute responsibility to him for the death of many Africans. Such accusations must always be supported by solid data. None has been presented so far. The causes of the HIV crisis in Africa need to be found elsewhere. The solutions go beyond mere latex. If anything, the holistic approach to sexuality that Catholicism advocates, based on the evidence at hand, seems to save lives.” (“Searching for Papal Scapegoats is Pointless,” British Medical Journal 331 [July 30, 2005] 294)
In light of all this factual evidence, how can the claim be made that the Catholic Church and its teachings have contributed to the spread of HIV/AIDS? And why was Pope Benedict condemned, ridiculed and censured for saying what he did in 2009, and now being interpreted in 2010 to have people believe that the church can approve condoms?
No doubt Professor Green is on to something in his Washington Post article when he says: “The condom has become a symbol of freedom and — along with contraception — female emancipation, so those who question condom orthodoxy are accused of being against these causes.” Might the same not be said of those who champion homosexual and other forms of sexual “emancipation?” One is led to ask whether “condom orthodoxy,” in the face of contrary evidence, has more to do with the sexual revolution of many people in the United States and the “developed” world than it has to do with the suffering people of Africa and their values, their love for children and family and their rejection of a contraceptive mentality.
As I indicated in a previous article, it is estimated that one in four of the 33 million AIDS patients worldwide is being cared for by the Catholic Church, including almost half of the total treatment efforts in Africa, where two-thirds of those afflicted with AIDS live. In Africa the Catholic Church is tremendously active in the fields of education, medicine and relief efforts. To the cries of those who call out for help in the face of AIDS, the church speaks and acts on the basis of moral and medical truths, not ideologyand fiction.