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March 18, 2009

Catholics and condoms

On his first trip to Africa, Pope Benedict XVI has waded into the debate over condoms and HIV/AIDS, reiterating the Catholic Church’s traditional stance that abstinence and marital fidelity are the answers, not condoms. AIDS activist groups, like the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, immediately attacked his comments, asserting the primacy of condoms in the AIDS battle.

The Pope’s stance on condoms is criminal — and lacks any nuance that shows he understands the human element of the epidemic. Does he honestly expect the millions of people infected by HIV to abstain from sex for the rest of their lives? What does he suggest married couples do, when one is infected and one not? Is the use of a condom really a greater sin than passing on a deadly virus? I was raised Catholic and I understand the theological basis for his stance — according to Catholic doctrine, the only acceptable purpose for sex is procreation, or at least the possibility of procreation. But emphasis matters as much as content. If the Catholic Church had, over the years, spent as much time and energy condemning the behaviors that spread the virus (or encouraging more healthy sexual behavior) as it had forbidding condoms, it might have made a positive contribution to the AIDS fight.

But as I wrote in my book, the Catholic Church is Africa has always been squeamish about talking about sex. In part this may reflect a certain aversion to the topic all-together — after all, this is a religion based on a virgin birth and whose representatives on earth are supposed to be abstinent. But there are specific cultural reasons in Africa that have made many Catholic priests and nuns on the continent wary of tackling issues of sexual behavior too directly — it upsets the pragmatic compromise christianity has struck with African converts, most of whom came from polygamous societies. Missionaries came to African and told converts they could only have one spouse, but generally looked the other way when people (initially men, though increasingly women too) took other, unofficial partners. So a kind of informal polygamy developed that operates in the shadows. Everybody knows it happens, but no one talks about it. And unfortunately, this system of multiple, overlapping sexual partnerships is one in which HIV thrives — as Helen Epstein’s excellent book The Invisible Cure shows.

Many of the priests and nuns I met, even those actively involved in AIDS issues, feared alienating their congregations by talking about issues of fidelity, especially in a climate where the Church already feels under threat from younger, more dynamic evangelical churches which are growing in strength. I remember once interviewing the Archbishop of Lesotho and asking him why the church wasn’t talking more about fidelity and he said the church had decided to devote its energy towards helping those already affected — he didn’t want to talk about the issue at all. To be fair, many of the priests and nuns I spoke to were also deeply uncomfortable with the Church’s stance on condoms. Some went so far as to pass out condoms despite papal disapproval, but most simply avoided talking about the issues. They didn’t support condom use, but they didn’t go out of their way to forbid it either.

So the Pope is wrong, but so are AIDS activists. Condoms are an important tool, but they’re not the whole solution. We’ve got to start tackling the sexual behavior behind the epidemic. It’s far from easy, but if Pope Benedict XVI really wants to make a difference in Africa, he’ll stop talking about condoms and start talking about sex. And I don’t mean talking about abstinence, because that’s not really an answer either. But how to have sex, responsibly and healthily — or as the Church might want to frame it, morally — in the era of AIDS.

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