The story arc of every papal trip is the same. First, journalists try to invent a controversy that they find more interesting than the true purpose of the trip. Then, the Pope wins people over in ways no one expected. Finally, surprised journalists file stories about how the Pope isn’t such a bad guy after all.
In the story of Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Africa — a trip that is ongoing as we go to press — that story is playing itself out. This time, the controversy is over the Holy Father’s remarks about condoms and AIDS.
Pope Benedict addressed the AIDS crisis with reporters on the plane to Cameroon. “You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms,” he said. “On the contrary, it increases the problem.”
Then, of course, shocked and outraged headlines raised the alarm about the Holy Father’s words.
But the Pope’s logic should be clear. We can think of a dozen analogies that make it clear.
Or, better, you can make your own analogy. To do so, first consider the facts of the matter.
Fact one: AIDS is deadly.
Fact two: It is spread by extramarital sex, which happens in moments of excitement, not moments of calculating self-control.
Fact three: Government officials in America and abroad have decided that saying, “Don’t have extramarital sex” is not an option.
To make your own condoms-promotion analogy:
1. Pick something else that’s deadly (gunshot wounds, smoke inhalation, asphyxiation).
2. Pick a method of spreading it that happens in moments of excitement (playing with guns, experimenting with fire, the deadly “choking game” adolescents were playing that the media recently warned about).
3. Apply the government condom response to the question.
To see just how absurd this is, rewrite actual headlines about the Pope’s condom comments with your new facts:
“Vatican defends Pope’s stand against playing with guns, but criticism mounts.” The body of the story would quote experts saying, “Bullet-proof vest distribution is the only way to save lives.”
“Scientists and activists say Church position against playing with matches is counterproductive.” Instead, fireproof carpets would be urged.
You might even make this headline: “German Catholic bishop shows signs of dissent on Church asphyxiation-game ban.”
The analogies aren’t perfect, of course. Extramarital sex isn’t only dangerous; it’s immoral. The Church couldn’t change that if it wanted to. As usual, though, the moral answer happens to be the one most in conformity with human happiness.
Governments have no problem making moral calls when it comes to giving advice about such things as playing with guns or matches or playing asphyxiation games. They say, unequivocally, that you can’t allow kids to do those things. But when it comes to extramarital sex, governments (with a few exceptions) refuse to say that it is wrong.
By promoting condoms, they may say they are just acknowledging that sex will happen and people had better be prepared. Why do governments try to equip them to do one thing safely, but just say “No” to the other? Clearly, because they don’t think extramarital sex is wrong. In fact, they are tacitly supplying a new moral commandment: “Your right to have sex when and how you want must not be abridged.”
It’s good that we make dangerous games taboo. If you attach a taboo to a behavior that harms someone, you have helped them. But if you refuse to attach a taboo to a dangerous (and immoral) action, you are complicit in the danger (physical and spiritual) you cause.
Those who want to promote condoms to fight the AIDS epidemic in Africa are killing Africans. The logic shows that. So does the research.
Our news story before the trip prepared readers for the AIDS fight. It reminded readers what we first reported last year: Secular researches say condom promotion worsens AIDS.
Edward Green is director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. His book is Rethinking AIDS Prevention: Learning From Successes in Developing Countries.
He reports that, between 1989 and 2001, African condom promotion efforts were very successful at distributing condoms, but were a spectacular failure at tackling the AIDS epidemic. Far more people than ever used condoms, and far more people than ever got AIDS. The nations with the highest levels of condom availability were the nations with the world’s highest HIV rates.
Norman Hearst is a family physician and epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco. UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, asked Hearst to do a scientific review to see if condom promotions had reversed HIV/AIDS epidemics.
His review found that not only had they not helped, they had worsened the problem. Countries with the most condoms per man tended to have the highest HIV rates.
“Condom promotion in Africa has been a disaster,” Hearst said. UNAIDS refused to publish Hearst’s findings.
Meanwhile, the Ugandan public education campaign against AIDS mentioned condoms, but emphasized abstinence, and sought to return the taboo on extramarital sex. Studies show that from 1991 to 2001 HIV infection rates in Uganda declined from about 15% to 5%.
“The Ugandan model has the most to teach the rest of the world,” said Green. “This policy should guide the development of programs in Africa and the Caribbean.”
Jeff Spieler, chief of the research division in the U.S. Agency for International Development population office, said, “It just happens to be where the evidence is pointing.”
Catholics shouldn’t feel defensive about the Church’s teaching. Our moral teaching isn’t the problem in Africa. It’s the solution — and lives depend on our willingness to proclaim this truth.