London ~~ Tuesday 17 March 2009
The wrong message on condoms
The pope is trying to take away one of the few things ordinary Africans can do to help themselves By Ela Soyemi
Pope Benedict XVI has reiterated the Vatican's policy that condoms do not solve the HIV/AIDS problem currently debilitating much of the African continent. The pope is visiting Cameroon and Angola on his week-long trip.
Angola is one of the few African countries in which AIDS has not yet become a massive "problem". This is because visiting the country and gaining access to its interior has been severely restricted as it recovers from its 27-year-long civil war. The war has meant that there is a serious lack of infrastructure in the country. Coupled with the fact that no major trade routes have yet been established with Angola, the situation is one of mixed blessings. Although the consequence has been economic and social under-development, making it yet another unremarkable African country, it has also meant that AIDS rates are very low. This is not a blessing that will last forever.
The country's president, José Eduardo dos Santos, is on the path to ensuring that the country takes up the mantle as one of Africa's fastest-developing nations. Should he achieve his goals, trade routes will open fast and more and more people will be allowed into the country. If Angola is not equipped with a solid AIDS prevention policy that includes the use of condoms at its core, it will quickly follow in the footsteps of countries like Swaziland and South Africa where AIDS/HIV rates are the highest on the continent.
The Vatican policy on the prevention of HIV/AIDS is that abstinence is the best cure. There is little to no documentation on countries that have been successful in preventing the virus using abstinence as a primary policy tool. Uganda, which has probably tackled HIV more effectively than other African countries, has made condom use its main policy on the issue.
The problem with the Vatican and Pope Benedict's policy on AIDS prevention goes beyond policy recommendations and mechanisms. Were these statements coming from a politician, as they did in the US under the Bush administration, the situation would not be so severe. The policies of foreign countries can be taken or left or they can be got around by policy manoeuvrings. When the pope expresses such views, they has an impact that goes beyond the theatre of politics.
According to the Vatican, in 2006, 17% of the African population were Catholics. More than this, Africa is a continent that is heavily religious and, south of the Sahara, largely Christian. Some belong to the Catholic church, many are Anglicans, but all take their belief in God very seriously. What the pope says will reach and matter to more than a mere 17% of Africans.
The Vatican's stance is not simply irresponsible; it is immoral. African countries, as some of the most under-developed in the world, will arguably suffer the worst consequences of the "new" global challenges – climate change and the global economic downturn. The "old" ones also have not gone anywhere – severe poverty, malaria, the brain-drain, poor health, education and infrastructure, bad and corrupt leadership, civil war and genocide.
The last thing Africans need is to be told that religion, the last vessel of hope for many, demands that they ignore one of the very few things they are able to do to help themselves.
London ~~ March 18, 2009
The Pope looks ill educated or ill intentionedCondoms alone won't stop HIV but they don't make it worse
By Elizabeth Pisani
As a badly lapsed Catholic, I don't often agree with the Pope. So I was surprised to find myself nodding when, on the eve of his first visit to Africa as pontiff, he pronounced that HIV/Aids was “a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms”.
So far so good. Neither cash nor simply handing out condoms will stop the spread of a fatal virus that has infected more than 70 million people worldwide, two thirds in Africa.
What came next was the shocker. According to the Pope, condoms “can even increase the problem”. Talking to journalists en route to Cameroon, he did not back this up.
I've worked with HIV prevention data for more than a decade, and I have found nothing to support this except a claim by William Bennett, a former Secretary of Education in the Reagan Administration, who once pointed out that condom use was higher in communities with higher HIV prevalence - clear evidence that condoms aggravate the epidemic. Similarly, more people use treated bed nets in Lagos than in London, and Nigeria has far more malaria than the UK - clear evidence that bed nets spread malaria.
The Pope is not daft enough to make this basic scientific error. He is even right that giving out condoms does not solve the HIV problem. Using them in sex between infected and uninfected people does, however, make an important contribution to reducing its spread. The Pope may not like that, but disputing its truth makes him seem either ill educated or ill intentioned.
What is his alternative? He is trying to sell us “spiritual and human awakening” and “friendship for those who suffer”. Here, for me, is the great mystery of the Christian approach to HIV. In the Pope's world view, one shared by many evangelicals, we must respond to Aids by showing compassion for its “victims”.
Why can't we also show compassion to uninfected people by helping them to stay that way, using every effective tool at our disposal? That includes abstinence, which works for many Catholic priests and some teenagers. And cutting down the number of people you have sex with. And condoms.
I would like to remind His Holiness that Africa is the only region in which his Catholic empire is growing, by more than 40 per cent in the past two decades. Neither obliging everyone to abstain from sex nor exposing them to death by discouraging condom use in high-risk partnerships is good for his business.
Elizabeth Pisani is an epidemiologist and author of The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of Aids (Granta)
London ~~ March 18, 2009
Pope’s attack on condoms sickens Aids campaignersJonathan Clayton in Johannesburg and Ruth Gledhill in London
The Pope caused dismay among Aids campaigners yesterday by declaring on his first trip to Africa that condoms were not the solution to the epidemic ravaging the continent.
In his first public comments on condom use, an issue that has divided even Roman Catholic clergy working with Aids sufferers, he told reporters en route to Cameroon that Aids “cannot be overcome by distributing condoms – it only increases the problem”.
Aids activists had hoped that Pope Benedict, who has emphasised previously that the Roman Catholic Church is in the forefront of the battle against Aids, would take a more nuanced approach than his predecessor, John Paul II.
Catholic and human rights activists immediately condemned the statement, saying that it showed that the Pope was out of touch with reality and advocating inhumane policies that would increase the suffering of innocent people.
Kevin Osborne, HIV adviser at the International Planned Parenthood Federation, said: “All the evidence is that preaching sexual abstinence and fidelity will not solve the problems. We need to work with the reality of where people are, especially in countries he is visiting such as Angola, which is hard-hit by the epidemic.
“The Pope’s message will alienate everybody. It is scary. It spreads stigma and creates a fertile breeding ground for the spread of HIV.”
Rebecca Hodes, head of policy, communication and research at Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, said that if the Pope were serious about preventing HIV infections he would focus on promoting wider access to condoms and information. “Instead, his opposition to condoms conveys that religious dogma is more important to him than the lives of Africans,” she said.
After his election, the Pope described Aids as “a cruel epidemic which not only kills but seriously threatens the economic and social stability of the continent”, but reiterated the Vatican ban on the use of condoms. It was hoped, however, that he would modify its position to take account of particular circumstances.
Echoing words spoken frequently by Pope John Paul II, Benedict declared that the “traditional teaching of the Church” on chastity outside marriage and fidelity within it had proved to be “the only sure way of preventing the spread of HIV and Aids”.
A few hours later, when his plane landed at Yaoundé the capital of Cameroon, he said that he was bringing the “Christian message of hope” to the world’s poorest continent – an assertion disputed strongly, even among his clergy. About 5 per cent of Cameroon’s 18 million people are believed to be living with HIV/Aids. Across the continent more than 22 million people are now infected.
The Vatican’s stand flies in the face of current world opinion. President Obama appears ready to reverse the Bush Administration’s controversial policy of giving financial aid only to organisations promoting abstinence and fidelity, a position adopted largely under pressure from the Christian Right.
The Pope’s comments look likely to create further division in a church racked by disagreements on numerous issues from gay rights to Holocaust denials.
A senior lay Catholic, who asked not to be named, said: “It is very hard to be a Catholic nowadays. We are meant to be following the Lord.”
He said that he felt as ashamed now as he had when the mother of a nine-year-old girl who had become pregnant with twins after being raped by her stepfather was excommunicated when she allowed doctors to abort the babies. The doctors were also excommunicated, but the stepfather suffered no penalty from the Church.
The Pope will fly from Cameroon to Angola, which is staunchly Catholic as well as badly hit by HIV/Aids after years of civil war.
Two years ago there was speculation that the Vatican might amend its ban on condoms after Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the former Archbishop of Milan, said that in couples where one partner had HIV/ Aids, the use of condoms was “a lesser evil”.
The World Health Organisation says that “consistent and correct” condom use reduces the risk of HIV infection by 90 per cent.
London ~~ Thursday 19 March 2009
Absurd words open to misinterpretation
How could the Pope have said something so manifestly absurd as he was arriving for his first visit to a continent where Aids has killed more than 25 million people over the past three decades?
By Paul Vallely
He began by saying that the distribution of condoms would not resolve the pandemic, which was fairly uncontroversial. Pope Benedict's motivation for saying so might be metaphysical or moral but few Aids professionals would disagree with the idea. But what could the pontiff be thinking about when he added that, indeed, condoms "aggravate" or "increase" the problem?
Many commentators leapt to the assumption that he was reiterating the wild opinion of the late Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, who as head of the Vatican's pontifical council for the family, claimed in 2003 the HIV virus could pass through the latex of condoms. Or perhaps the Pope was referring to the fact that condoms sometimes break, slip or are put on incorrectly.
It is hard to know because the words he used were so vague. When a reporter suggested that the Catholic Church's position on the fight against Aids was unrealistic and ineffective the Pope responded: "I would say the opposite." He cited the importance of the Church's care for Aids victims – the Catholic Church is the world's single biggest provider of care to people with Aids through its hospitals, hospices and orphanages on many continents – and the Church's insistence that sex should be a profound expression of love rather than a hedonistic self-indulgence. On condoms he offered only an aside: "One cannot overcome the problem with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, they increase the problem."
What seems most likely is that he was suggesting something more tangential: condoms are the product of a culture where sexual licence is acceptable, and this culture needs to be challenged. But his words implied more.
Most Aids campaigners agree the best way to avoid transmission of the virus is to abstain from sexual intercourse or have a monogamous relationship with an uninfected person. That is why the strategy in Africa is the ABC campaign, which stands for Abstinence, Be faithful, and Condoms. But it is no use the Pope sticking to A and B, then implying that C undermines the other two prongs of the attack.
In Africa today, many men routinely seek additional sexual partners and many young women have sex with several older men to provide them with material comforts. It may well be that Africans are no more promiscuous than the rest of the world. But poverty, poor education and the lack of effective health services make the consequences of such attitudes more highly visible.
Abstinence and fidelity may be admirable aspirations but there is a need for other approaches. Condoms have been shown to reduce HIV transmission by 80 per cent. And they are most effective in slowing the disease's spread among high-risk groups such as sex workers and customers, who are perhaps least susceptible to papal obsecrations.
There was a time when it seemed the Church might take a more common-sense view. The retired Cardinal Martini of Milan, who might now be pope had the post become vacant earlier, suggested that in some situations – such as where one partner in a married couple was HIV positive – the use of condoms might constitute "a lesser evil".
But a 200-page report by a panel of scientists and theologians on the subject, commissioned by the Pontifical Council for Health and sent to the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog in 2006, appears mired inside the Curia. Apparently there is too much disagreement about its recommendations which some conservatives feel will be "misinterpreted" by the media and the public.
The trouble is that, when it comes to ambiguous statements that invite misinterpretation, Pope Benedict – to judge by his controversial pronouncements on Islam and his miscalculations over the Holocaust-denying bishop Richard Williamson – does not seem to have that good a track record himself.
London ~~ Thursday 19 March 2009
A Pope who seems fallible
From offending Jews and Muslims to saying condoms could make Africa's Aids crisis worse, Benedict XVI appears destined to blunder
By Peter Popham in Rome
Pope Benedict XVI arrives at Yaoundé airport in Cameroon this week at the start of his African tour (GETTY IMAGES)
On his first pontifical visit to Africa this week, Pope Benedict XVI set off another storm of controversy when he said that condoms were not only not the solution to the continent's Aids crisis but that they actually "make matters worse".
It was just the latest in an endless succession of high-profile gaffes that have made the brainiest pope of modern times also by a wide margin the most accident-prone.
In previous pratfalls the Bavarian theologian has welcomed back into the Church a bishop who flatly denies the existence of the Nazi gas chambers, refused to sign UN declarations on the rights of homosexuals and the disabled, denied the possibility of inter-religious dialogue after praying in a mosque, insulted Muslims en masse, and failed to mention the Jews while visiting Auschwitz.
Benedict's gaffes are becoming as frequent and predictable as Silvio Berlusconi's. And while Joseph Ratzinger has never cultivated the image of clown and raconteur so dear to the Italian PM, there is something else that the two men share: they wait for the grand occasion, when the world is hanging on their words, to drop their peculiar bombshells.
It was always going to be interesting to hear what Berlusconi had to say, standing alongside Russia's President Medvedev, about newly-elected President Obama. Berlusconi picked that moment to say that Obama "has a good tan". He chose the spotlight of a joint press conference to tell President Sarkozy, sotto voce but audibly, that Carla Bruni was his personal gift to the Frenchman.
Likewise, Pope Benedict picked his first trip to Africa to drop his condom bomb. Given the huge amount of flak the Church has received from Aids campaigners over the years for its failure to endorse the use of condoms in any circumstances, even within a marriage in which one partner is infected, this was not a subject that the pontiff could ignore.
Nor was it one on which there was the slightest likelihood that the Pope would change his mind. "God's rottweiler", as he was known during the 28 years when he advised Pope John Paul II on theology, is not for turning. But this is also the Pope who has told close colleagues that he sees his mission as, "protecting the integrity of the faith and conveying the message that Christianity is joy". This is the Pope whose only encyclical so far in his four-year reign was on love – and yes, that includes sexual love.
A Pope, in other words, who seems to understand the need to project the positive aspects of faith, and to have some thought for the feelings of those affronted or disappointed by his hugely predictable views. And yet who repeatedly, at moments of great expectation, finds ways to injure the feelings of millions of people. His "make matters worse" comment immediately provoked a flood of criticism. Alain Fogue, an Aids campaigner in Cameroon, said: "The people will not follow what the Pope is saying. He lives in heaven and we are on earth. To claim that condoms 'aggravate' the problem of Aids goes totally against all the efforts made by the Cameroonian government and other actors involved in the struggle against Aids in Cameroon."
Such remarks were foreseeable. Less predictable, and a great deal more worrying for the Vatican, were the stark denunciations from France and Germany. Eric Chevalier, of the French foreign ministry, said there was "enormous worry about the consequences" of the Pope's comments for the struggle against Aids. "France expresses its very strong disquiet about the consequences of Benedict XVI's declaration," he said. In Berlin, Ulla Schmidt of the health ministry, responded bluntly: "Condoms save lives, as much in Europe as in other continents."
Elizabeth Pisani an epidemiologist who has criticised international charities for their approach to combating Aids in Africa described his claim as "a shocker". Attacks from the highest levels are becoming another feature of Ratzinger's gaffes. And they get results. When Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel took the Pope to task over his rash re-admittance of the schismatic Society of Saint Pius X, including the British Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson, his first response was an angry, "none of your business".
In a seven-page letter to all Catholic bishops the Pope showed he was still smarting from the attacks, including those from inside the Church. "A discussion of such vehemence," he admitted, "had not been experienced for a long time." But when it became clear that at least some of those re-admitted preserved the anti-Semitic views espoused by the Church up until the second Vatican Council, the Pope took the trouble to re-rebuild his bridges to the Jews.
That is the other repetitive feature of the Pope's attacks of foot-in-mouth: his eventual willingness to back down. During a learned discourse to theologians at his old university in Germany in 2006, Benedict quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor as saying that Mohamed brought, "things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". For several weeks the papacy became the Islamic world's punchball of choice. And, as in the Williamson affair and the Auschwitz blunder, eventually the Pope climbed down. And that in itself is an unedifying sight.
While the concept of papal infallibility is widely misunderstood, and certainly does not apply to off-the-cuff remarks to journalists, it is damaging to the great prestige of his office when the Pope has to eat his words. But he often does it, eventually, and with a will. Why does a Pope of such great intellectual gifts, whose published works are hailed by many who disagree with his doctrinal positions as works of sensitivity and illumination, make so many mistakes?
One answer may be that Pope Benedict XVI is notoriously shy, and while he goes through the papal motions gamely enough, he has never developed any relish for the grand theatre of the Church. In an intimate setting – presiding over an outdoor Mass at Ephesus in Turkey in 2006 for example, before a few dozen people – he came across as warmly paternal. But when the whole world is watching, he seems to lose the plot.
Close observers of the Vatican claim that a lot of it is down to his solitary style of governing: so sure is this Pope of his great powers that nobody can over-rule his decisions. "He's shut up in his study," one cardinal said off the record. "He's a theologian, not an executive. A great theologian may not necessarily have his finger on the pulse of reality."