Sex and sensibility: Doing harm in places where Catholicism should have a bright future

Mar 19th 2009
From The Economist print edition

Doing harm in places where Catholicism should have a bright future

AFP AFRICANS always give a visiting pope a hearty welcome. Thousands of finely dressed Cameroonians danced and sang at the roadside this week as Pope Benedict XVI arrived on an inaugural African tour that will also take in Angola. The Vatican is keen on the continent, home to around 135m Catholics. Pope Benedict delivered a compassionate message, recognising that Africa suffers disproportionately from food shortages, poverty, financial turmoil and a changing climate. Yet for all the mutual appreciation, he got one matter painfully wrong.

Asked about the use of condoms to help tackle the scourge of AIDS, the pope restated, in unusually explicit terms, the church’s position that these are not useful to “overcome” the epidemic, indeed their use actually makes the problem worse. He suggested the disease could be beaten through chastity, abstinence and “correct behaviour”. Speaking in a continent where more than 20m people have died from AIDS and another 22.5m are infected with HIV, his statement sounded otherworldly at best, and crass and uncaring at worst. Merely wishing away human sexual behaviour does nothing for the potential victims of AIDS, many of whom are innocent under even the most moralistic definition of that word.

An ugly light
It need not be that way. Three years ago Pope Benedict was willing for his council for health to consider whether condom use would be a “lesser evil” than allowing the spread of a deadly virus. Liberal cardinals had suggested that in a marriage where one partner is infected, condoms should be permitted. In Africa, as elsewhere, many Catholics simply ignore the Vatican’s view on condoms anyway.

The pope now seems immovable on the issue. His words on condoms and AIDS look particularly heartless in light of a scandal in Brazil that also casts the Catholic church in a poor light. An archbishop there excommunicated doctors for performing an abortion on a nine-year-old girl who had been raped repeatedly by her stepfather and made pregnant with twins. The girl’s mother was also expelled from the church; the rapist was not. The Vatican has made a partial retreat, criticising the haste with which the decision was made—and, eventually, the decision itself. In this and in its views on condom use to combat the spread of AIDS, the Vatican risks seeming callous to the plight of the weakest, surely those whom the church should strive hardest to protect.

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