As Benedict XVI journeyed on his second trip to Africa as Pope, memories of condom-focused media coverage last time around are still fresh. What exactly does the Church teach, and what exactly do Africans need?

Matthew Hanley is co-author of Affirming Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach the West, published by the National Catholic Bioethics Center, which was recently honored by the Catholic Press Association, and a new guide called “The Catholic Church and the Global AIDS Crisis,” published by the Catholic Truth Society in England. He spoke about some of these issues as the Holy Father made his way to Benin Nov. 18.

AIDS is affecting beautiful people who are full of life and dreams and plans. What does love and beauty and the Golden Rule have to do with combating AIDS?

Those suffering from AIDS often stand in need not just of medical care, but of internal healing and a compassionate human presence, particularly in the face of various forms of abandonment. But the same concepts and vocabulary we use to promote caregiving should not be applied selectively; they should extend to prevention as well.

For instance, if it’s a matter of justice (as we tend to hear from activists) to supply people with HIV medications in Africa, why would we ignore that justice also applies to the realm of interpersonal relationships? The misuse of sexuality and exploitation of others is an injustice, one that leaves painful though less measurable wounds lodged in the hearts of men and women, whether or not HIV is part of the picture.

But this is much more uncomfortable for us to admit. It hits closer to home, and it sounds judgmental to modern ears; this is the ultimate no-no. So, we have soft-pedaled the behavioral dynamics which fuel the pandemic and relied instead mainly on risk-reduction measures.

But by only trying to make everything “safer” through technical, supposedly judgment-free “solutions,” we abandon all regard for how we should treat one another (the Golden Rule). Here’s where John Paul II, I think, provides the best antidote for this mentality: “Only love can preclude the use of one person by another.” He wrote that back in 1960, but I can’t think of a sharper insight, or a more relevant remedy, for a whole host of ills today.

It’s in the Pope’s best interest, isn’t it, for you to shout from the rooftops that condom effectiveness is oversold?

I actually think that there is a broader point that should be of concern to everyone. The Pope, unlike public-health authorities, is not explicitly tasked with containing epidemics. In that sense, it’s alarming that he has a better read on the situation — and a much higher regard for human capacities — than trained authorities who are tasked with doing so. This suggests something is radically askew.

Our health-care leaders simply have not been able to bring themselves to clearly prioritize the behaviors (fidelity and abstinence) which enable people to avoid AIDS altogether: greater levels of which, incidentally, have always preceded drops in AIDS prevalence.

The fact of the matter is that the condom’s track record is rather poor. That goes for AIDS in Africa and a host of STDs here in the West.

Condoms may protect some people from some infections some of the time, but that is far from saying they are effective or constructive as public-health policy. HIV transmission rates have remained constant here for the past decade; even Dr. Anthony Fauci of the NIH (National Institutes of Health) took to the pages of The Washington Post recently to characterize, in unusually strong terms, our AIDS-prevention efforts as a failure — although he still dared not emphasize behavioral changes. 

Your question got me thinking of, perhaps, another way to put it: One might fairly interpret the “Pope’s best interests” as something akin to the common good — since he is charged with safeguarding matters of faith and morals which are conducive to it — rather than the particular interests of Joseph Ratzinger, the individual man.

The pity is that we should be able to place trust in our public-health authorities to promote the common good as well.

Can the Western media manage to talk about anything but backward, cruel, Catholic social teaching on human sexuality and the use of condoms?

I suspect they will find a way to resurface the issue, even if he does not mention AIDS this time around; after all, HIV prevalence in Benin (1.2%) is relatively low compared to other African countries or, say, Washington, D.C. (about 3%).

He could have deflected the condom question last time and spared himself the frenzy that ensued. But he chose to present a vital, hope-filled alternative to the prevailing and despairing risk-reduction models which have failed us so miserably. 

The media will doubtlessly have opportunities, should they wish to accept them, to grapple with similarly bold yet charitable statements — the kinds of which people just don’t make in this era of superficial multiculturalism. In the past month, for example, he has spoken clearly about the need to purify African religions of practices, such as witchcraft, which holds people in the grip of great fear and frequently leads to the taking of innocent life, that are “incompatible with following Christ,” noting that even many baptized Christians live with divided hearts.

This is a brilliant way to frame another sensitive issue. (I just returned from a part of Africa where these practices are pervasive, if little discussed.) He identifies the need to uproot a specific regional problem in terms that have universal application: How many of our own hearts here in the West are divided? How many of our own practices, even those protected by law, are, pure and simple, incompatible with following Christ?

This issue might not generate quite the same level of indignation — it’s not about sex. But it is, he says, a duty for us to say these things. Imagine if no one did say them.

Read the entire interview at

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist.