Thursday, March 19, 2009

Pope Benedict on Condoms: I Wish He Hadn't

Every once in a while, I sit down and compile a list of my favorite people. As I make this list, I am keenly aware that some will never make it on my list; in fact if I made the opposite list, they may rank rather high on that list. Pope Benedict XVI is one of those unfavored people. As his papacy extends, he has wedged himself nicely on my "other" list.

At the beginning of his "Africa tour," the good old man once again pontificated; this time about condoms and AIDS in Africa. In his words: "You can’t resolve [the HIV/AIDS crisis] with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem."

Even a dispassionate observer should be displeased with the pope's pronouncement - it is scientifically inaccurate.

For those of us who consider the HIV pandemic in Africa a battle, displeasure is an understatement. The pope's words were irresponsible for a plethora of reasons: it was his first time on the continent as Pope Benedict. It was his first time addressing the use of condoms since he ascended unto the papal throne. The African continent is one of the few regions where the Catholic church is growing - they listen to the wise old man.

To use that platform to dissuade Africans (and others) from using condoms set advocates working to prevent the virus back several notches. It perpetuates some of the misperceptions that already exist: one of the most powerful voices just said condoms may increase the HIV problem, so why should I use it? Maybe that HIV counselor was wrong, I'm sure the pope knows better than she does ... the stories can continue.

I acknowledge that Pope Benedict has one quasi valid point - condoms alone are not the solution to the HIV crisis. However, we are past the point where experts argue over the efficacy of condoms. We may not have resolved the question of how best to fight HIV, but we know and agree that condoms are part of the solution. Why then is the pope telling the most affected people otherwise?

What does this have to do with the nonprofit sector? A large number of folks invested in international HIV education, delivery of services to infected people, and those hard at work to prevent future cases of HIV are in the nonprofit sector. Many of these are friends and former colleagues. I can only imagine their frustration when they read the pope's pronouncements.

Public statements from influential people are powerful. On a topic as vital as methods of HIV prevention, it helps when these voices use their platform responsibly.

Did I mention HIV is a pandemic in Africa? There is room for discussion over best practices. There is no room for dogmatic misinformation.

By Kehinde Togun


Anonymous said...

I take comfort in the Catholic Church's increasing irrelevance worldwide. You might take some as well: in my travels to Africa and elsewhere, most Church staff and faithful engaged in anti-HIV and AIDS activities ignore such irresponsible and erroneous Church "teachings" and freely provide up-to-date family planning and reproductive health services, including condoms.

--John Engels

Nora Gelperin said...

I could not agree with you more and was outraged to hear someone in such a position of power intended to do good in the world speak such vile, inaccurate words that could potentially risk lives. I thought the Pope would be a voice for life for the people in Africa suffering under the tremendous burden of the HIV pandemic and it's ironic that in an effort to save their own lives, the Pope should encourage condom use - every single time!

Tamara said...

I have to interrupt this Catholic-bashing session. Although, you may passionately disagree about the Pope's stance on this issue, and many do, to say that you take comfort in the Catholic Church's irrelevance is unsettling. Understandably, many people take issue with Church teachings. However, let's not forget that the Catholic Church plays a vital social service role in the world including a mission of service to the poor and a consistent battle against the death penalty.