Monday, March 23, 2009

People Who Live in Celibate Houses

... shouldn't throw stones at condoms.

A dumb line, but give us a break.  We've been away, and it takes a while to warm up.

As Egg readers surely know, Pope Benedict told a group of reporters that the distribution of condoms in Africa would not help control the spread of HIV, and could make it worse.  He said basically the same thing in 2005, when he argued that "The traditional teaching of the church has proven to be the only failsafe way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS."

On one hand, we want to roll our eyes at the subsequent media explosion.  Come on, people.  What did you think the Pope was going to say about condoms?  That's not exactly atough call.  Benedict is just toeing the party line here.

But on the other hand, he's a smart guy, and he should be smarter than this.  Yes, of course, abstaining from sex outside of marriage -- and marrying only certifiable virgins -- is the only failsafe way to prevent the sexual transmission of HIV.  That is a literal fact.  (Although the "marrying only virgins" bit isn't part of Papist doctrine at all. There are widows, for example -- and lots of them, on a continent in which HIV infection rates are horrifyingly high, and access to medication still infuriatingly limited.)

The Pope is an academic, and like academics has the rare privilege of dealing with abstractions and generalities.  Doctors and, not incidentally, parish priests have to deal with reality.  The reality, as anyone who has ever heard confessions knows all to well, is that sexual sin runs rampant through the world.  People copulate like bunnies.  They aren't always particular about their partners.  To pretend otherwise is simply foolish.  And it is far worse than foolish to deny them ready access to a simple and affordable device that will prevent them from paying for an indiscretion -- yes, granted, even a long pattern of adultery and fornication -- with their lives.

It would be a terrible overstatement to call Benedict's remarks "genocidal," or anything of that nature.  He is surely as moved as anybody else by the colossal suffering of Africans.  And yet his is blindered, both by the privileges of academia and by those of life in the West, where the ready availability of money to put somebody on "the cocktail" for life, combined with an aggressive public-health effort (focused, never forget, on condoms), has helped AIDS look less like the Plague and more like tuberculosis.  

Benedict is also, clearly, blindered not just by doctrine, but by having long ago chosen sides in a debate about how doctrine should be presented; he is so accustomed to denigrating condoms as a tool for preventing babies that he simply can't grasp how essential they are as a tool for saving lives.  This isn't willfully genocidal, but it is a potentially costly blindness, especially on a continent where, apparently, some people still actually listen to what the Pope says about birth control.

An African commentator, linked above, looks at Pope Benedict calling for Africans to pay for adultery with death, and Anglican bishop Peter Akinola calling for gay people asking for "to be mercilessly brutalised, without remorse," and asks what in context is an all-too-reasonable question:  What has Africa done to deserve Christianity?  

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