Piling on the pope

On the plane taking him to Africa for the first time as pope, Benedict XVI fielded some questions last week from reporters, including one about the spread of AIDS there and whether the position of the Catholic Church was unrealistic and ineffective. The Pope said that he would say the opposite, that “the scourge [of AIDS] cannot be resolved by distributing condoms; quite the contrary, we risk worsening the problem. The solution can only come through a twofold commitment: firstly, the humanization of sexuality, in other words a spiritual and human renewal bringing a new way of behaving towards one another; and secondly, true friendship, above all with those who are suffering, a readiness--even through personal sacrifice--to be present with those who suffer. And these are the factors that help and bring visible progress.”

Western media pundits reacted like Dracula when confronted by a crucifix: The New York Times dogmatically pontificated: “Grieviously wrong! There is no evidence that condom use is aggravating the epidemic and considerable evidence that condoms, though no panacea, can be helpful in many circumstances.” A Washington Post “Catholic” commentator headed his column, “Impeach the Pope,” and stated, “the cardinal sin of the Catholic Church--a literally deadly sin, if ever there was one--is its opposition to birth control.” The National Catholic Reporter ran a story headlined, “Gay Catholic Groups Condemn Pope’s Statements in Africa on Condom Use,” and quoted the communications director of Call to Action as saying: “To this day, the Vatican bans the use of condoms by Catholics. This is just morally wrong.”

Condoms, it turns out, are a sacred cow. Condom is King. The modern secular dogma is that sex is all about having fun, and that the possibility of having children as a consequence, or contracting a serious life-threatening disease, needs to be nipped in the bud by a flexible shield of body armor that could easily be mistaken for a balloon. Problem is, life is more complicated than that. Sex is deep and mysterious and intrinsically related to life and death and love and selfishness. It’s not all fun and games and can’t be fixed with a rubber band-aid. So when the pope suggests that condoms aren’t the answer he must be shouted down, even or especially when what he says is true.

Dr. Edward C. Green, author of five books and over 250 peer-reviewed articles, is the director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. He is not a Catholic, but an agnostic. He told National Review Online last week that “the Pope is correct; or put it a better way, the best evidence we have supports the pope’s comments...Condoms have been proven to not be effective at the ‘level of population.’”

“There is,” Green says, “a consistent association shown by our best studies, including the U.S.-funded ‘Demographic Health Surveys,’ between greater availability and use of condoms and higher (not lower) HIV-infection rates. This may be due in part to a phenomenon known as risk compensation, meaning that when one uses a risk-reduction ‘technology’ such as condoms, one often loses the benefit (reduction in risk) by ‘compensating’ or taking greater chances than one would take without the risk-reduction technology.” I can understand this: how often a diet soda will give me an excuse to indulge in potato chips or chocolates or whatever!

Green continued: “The best and latest empirical evidence indeed shows that reduction in multiple and concurrent sexual partners is the most important single behavior change associated with reduction in HIV-infection rates...” This is what the pope called “the humanization of sexuality, in other words a spiritual and human renewal bringing a new way of behaving towards one another.” As Dr. Green wrote in First Things last April, “Christian churches--indeed, most faith communities--have a comparative advantage in promoting the needed types of behavior change, since these behaviors conform to their moral, ethical, and scriptural teachings. What the churches are inclined to do anyway turns out to be what works best in AIDS prevention.”

On March 10, Pope Benedict published a letter to bishops concerning the remission of the excommunication of the Lefebvrite bishops, another recent instance of the media piling on the pope. In it, he commented on the reaction of some who “openly accused the Pope of wanting to turn back the clock....: an avalanche of protests was unleashed, whose bitterness laid bare wounds deeper than the present moment.”

He mentioned St. Paul’s advice in Galatians 5:13-15, “surprised at the directness with which that passage speaks to us about the present moment: ‘Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour one another, take heed that you are not consumed by one another.’...Should we be surprised that we too are no better than the Galatians? That at the very least we are threatened by the same temptations? That we must always learn anew the proper use of freedom? And that we must always learn anew the supreme priority, which is love?” The same comment could be made about the current contretemps over condoms.

Dwight G. Duncan is a professor at Southern New England School of Law. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.