Think contraception: the Pope in Africa


The Pope could have expressed his view without damagingly distorting facts writes Stephen Boyle.

THE CURRENT POPE is no stranger to controversy. In a little over three years, he has managed to cause outrage and condemnation by drawing parallels between homosexuality and the ecological threats to our planet, by quoting a passage about Mohammed which argued that in his contribution to religion “you will find things only evil and inhuman”, and by his argument that Catholicism has helped purify Latin America, with a return to native religions to be seen as a “step backwards”.

It was therefore, no great surprise that on his recent trip to Africa he again courted controversy with his statement that condoms make the problem of AIDS worse. His comments have raised several serious questions about the role that the church plays in Africa, the right of the Pontiff to express his opinions on faith and the best way to treat HIV/AIDS.

Some have and will argue, that the Pope speaks from a position of faith, and that as such he is entitled to say whatever he wishes. This is, to a certain extent, true. The Pope can say what he wishes unimpeded. It is the hallmark of any decent, free or fair society that it would defend the rights of anyone to say what they wish, regardless of their standing within a community or the veracity of their statements. Indeed allowing those with whom you disagree to speak freely is the only true test of free speech.

However, this argument has two limits. Firstly, just because somebody has the right to say something, does not mean they should say it. Secondly, a right to free speech does not mean that others who wish to disagree with you should be denied the opportunity to do so, as is the clear implication of many arguments. Rational criticism is just as important a part of free speech as the right to make an initial statement.

To let the Pope’s statement go unchallenged would have done a profound disservice to the people of Africa, the scientific community, and the many aid workers on the ground who actively promote the use of condoms as a way of saving the lives of some of the millions of Africans for whom the threat of HIV is a constant spectre.

That the Pope’s statement was untrue has been confirmed by many different organisations, studies and by common sense. An editorial in the respected British Medical journal, the Lancet made the case most clearly when it said “by saying that condoms exacerbate the problem of HIV/AIDS, the Pope has publicly distorted scientific evidence to promote Catholic doctrine on this issue.”

“the church has a moral responsibility to speak truthfully not just to their own, but to the continent as a whole”

A comment piece ran recently in the Irish Catholic with the headline ‘Lancet should look at the facts before condemning Pope’. In it David Quinn contends that condom promotion campaigns have encouraged the spread of AIDS. The essence of this argument is that condoms cause the spread of AIDS because they encourage more promiscuous sexual activity, essentially giving people a ‘carte blanche’ to do as they wish without the fear of the consequences.

There are three problems with this post-fact justification of the Pope’s remarks. Firstly, they ascribe a much more detailed argument to the Pope than the one he actually put forward. Anyone listening to his initial comments would far more readily take from them that condoms themselves cause the spread of HIV, rather than doing so indirectly in the form of greater sexual activity.

Secondly, nearly all the evidence points to the fact that condoms do not increase the rates of sexual activity. They merely protect those who continue to do what they were already doing. That some scientists have reached different conclusions is not unusual, that the majority have found condoms to be effective should be more important in guiding public health decisions.

The third, and most important criticism of these arguments relates to their denial of a very important nuance: namely that it is entirely plausible to argue for abstinence or one partner fidelity and for condoms. Initially this may seem a little bizarre. However, when thought out it becomes more obvious.

As the author in the Irish Catholic himself says, it is possible to have a condom promotion campaign which runs in tandem with an abstinence programme. In essence it is the message of many secondary school teachers around this country: you’d be mad to have sex, but if you do, you’d be mad not to use a condom. The Pope’s comments entirely denied the nuance of this position, instead characterising all condoms as contributing to the problem of HIV/ AIDS.

The reason that this distinction is important is because of the growing role the church plays in Africa. With countries like Angola and Cameroon becoming increasingly Catholic, more and more people are turning to the church for spiritual advice. The views expressed by the Pope can therefore have a large impact of many people. The reach of his comments could well go beyond the faithful.

In a continent where misinformation is so rife that a prominent South African politician claimed he could not have caught HIV because he had a shower after sex, any further misinformation makes it harder to clear up the pre-existing rumours. As such, the church has a moral responsibility to speak truthfully not just to their own, but to the continent as a whole.

It is with that powerful position and role in mind that it becomes obvious that criticism of the Pope’s comments is both reasoned and reasonable. The church is in many ways a powerful force for good in Africa. Its missions, schools, workers and money make a real difference to people’s lives on the ground. It is perfectly entitled and arguably right to contend that people should curb their sexual enthusiasm on the continent. However, it need not, and should not distort the facts and spread misinformation in doing so.