Speaking up for the Pope

The Catholic Church has a well known position on the use of condoms: it doesn't approve. You may think that's a crazy policy - I, as it happens, think it's a crazy policy - but it is hardly likely that the pope is going to change it off the top of his head while on a plane bound for Cameroon. So when a French journalist asked him about the policy - noting that it was "often considered unrealistic and ineffective" - it's unlikely that he expected anything other than a clear defence of the church's view. Which is, more or less, what he got. Benedict began by noting the good work done by religious orders before adding (my translation):

I would say that one cannot overcome the problem of AIDS merely with slogans [orig: money]. If there is not the spirit, if the Africans do not help themselves, you can't overcome the scourge by handing out condoms. On the contrary, [the risk is that] they make the problem worse. The solution requires a two-pronged attack. First, humanising sexuality, that is a human and spiritual renovation which brings with it a new way of relating to each other. Secondly, genuine friendship towards those in need, the desire - which entails sacrifice, personal renunciation - to be with the sufferers. Those are the factors that will help and which will bring visible progress.

I think some of those sentiments are quite profound. But, needless to say, the suggestion that condoms might make things worse caused quite a kerfuffle. Ratzo's media people clumsily attempted to defuse the latest papal "gaffe" by adding the words "the risk is" to the official website. Something that the Times quickly spotted, and which led Damian Thompson to renew his not-so-subtle campaign to be made head of communications at the Vatican by accusing the present incumbent, Fr Lombardi, of being "beyond stupid". What the revision actually shows is how in the wake of the Richard Williamson fiasco the Vatican is running scared of the global media.

And the media, for their part, scent blood. Hence a statement that was, even in its original form, more-or-less what anyone would have expected the pope to say is treated as yet another demonstration of Benedict's peculiar combination of reactionary views and tactlessness. So, for example, the "progressive" religious think tank (now there's an oxymoron to savour) Ekklesia huffed that the added caveat was "unlikely to satisfy critics who say his dogmatic stance against contraception is seriously damaging the fight against HIV-AIDS and endangering the lives of millions".

Peter Popham in the Independent suggests that the condom remark was merely "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" and claims that his alleged gaffes "are becoming as frequent and predictable as Silvio Berlusconi's":

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.

That last one sounds like quite a serious omission, I'll grant you. But "pratfalls"? It rather depends on what you suppose the pope is for. If you imagine that he is (or ought to be) a kindly spokesman for international niceness, a sort of UN goodwill ambassador in a white robe, or think (as Tony Blair appears to) that Catholicism is a sort of mushy coming-together of the opaquely well-intentioned, then maybe you'll wonder what Ratzinger's up to when he expresses politically incorrect opinions. Or you'll act "shocked, shocked" to discover that there's been some Catholicism going on in the Vatican. If only he could be like the Dalai Lama, you'll think, an aid junkie who giggles so benignly it's easy to forget that he was once the omnipotent god-king of a corrupt medieval theocracy. John Paul II, at least in the decade before he started drooling and falling over on stage, was such a natural showman that he managed to overcome - even to ignore - the criticism he inevitably drew from the bien pensants. Ratzinger, by contrast, a shy intellectual with a lisping German accent, yellowing skin and a taste for baroque costumes, is a gift to his opponents both inside and outside the church. And don't they just love to hate him.

Every time he says anything that might remotely be construed as controversial it's open season. Now even politicians see advantage in laying into him. That taboo was breached when Angela Merkel blasted him publicly during the Williamson affair. These latest remarks drew condemnation from the French and German governments, and the Dutch Development Minister Bert Koenders said it was "extremely harmful and very serious" that the Pope was "forbidding people from protecting themselves". Which is, needless to say, very far from what he was saying. But, hey, now everyone's at it, why not have a go at the Pope. It's not as though militant Catholics are going to gather outside the BBC shouting "death to the unbelievers", or set light to effigies of Polly Toynbee.

The Pope is a Catholic. Yes, I know, I couldn't quite believe it either - I'm still trying to process the information about bears and their excretory functions, but there you go. And it turns out that the church which Ratzinger currently leads (or tries to) has various opinions, not all of which may be in strict accordance with the editorial line generally taken by the Guardian. Amazing.


Olive said…
I haven't seen him wear that frock before. It's very 'Las Vegas era Elvis', isn't it?
Anonymous said…
This seems like an interesting topic to pursue further. For those who want to write about the Church's prohibition of condom use, you may want to check out http://www.irdialogue.org/submissions. It looks like a neat peer reviewed journal to which one can submit articles related to religion and sexuality.
Neuroskeptic said…
That's all very well but doesn't it amount to saying "Yeah he's wrong, but it's his job to be wrong"?

Besides, I'm not sure it is his job to be wrong. Ratzinger is conservative by Catholic standards. While it's the Pope's job to be Catholic, it's not his job to be Catholic in the way he is. That's his personal choice.
Olive said…
@neuroskeptic- are yoiu suggesting he should be more catholic in his Catholicism?
valdemar said…
I sort of agree with you. John Paul II held much the same views, and that's not surprising. However, JP2 was charismatic and widely admired. Ratzo is widely disliked and suspected (rightly or wrongly) of all sorts of bigoted ideas. Perhaps what's really happened - apart from a rather unlikeable German taking charge - is that Catholicism has passed the tipping point? All organisations, movements, empires, schools of thought, have their autumnal decline. Catholicism is, after all, essentially a Western European religion that has failed in Western Europe - Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Italy. It may renew and transform itself elsewhere. But if it become predominantly a Latin American, African and Asian faith it will not be Catholicism as we know it. Apart from anything else, condoms are okay with a lot of Third World priests and nuns.
Edwin Moore said…
'it is hardly likely that the pope is going to change it off the top of his head'

heavens above so that's what the thing on his head is!
Anonymous said…
The Pope is right in this case. Look at the statistics of Uganda, who chose to emphasize monogamous marriage and fidelity, as opposed to other nations who bit into the American Mainstream Media hype that condoms will save people from HIV/AIDS. The nations who took the condom route have the highest rates in Africa. Go figure.

Juxtapose Phillipines and Thailand. WHO predicted each country in the late 1990's would have about 80,000 cases HIV/AIDS. One has ten times more, the other ten times less than the prediction. One chose condoms, the other not. Phillipines chose fidelity as a measure, and they ended up successful in the fight against AIDS.

Washington DC has a free condom policy, it has 3 times a higher rate of HIV/AIDS than the rest of the US.

Folks, wake up, condoms aren't the answer. We need to change our mindset on sex in order to win this battle against a horrible disease that is ravaging men and women, especially those who live on the margins.
mantra2 said…
The Pope is only trying to force his belief system on africa. I wrote about it myself in my blog:


check it out if you want too :)
McDuff said…
I'm of two minds about this kind of thing.

For a start, there is a quite obvious anti-Catholic bias at play, because as stupid as the Vatican's positions on things like condoms are, the Vatican actually has a slightly better track record on basic science than many of the mainstream protestant sects who don't come under scrutiny.

On the other hand, it's arguable that one of the reasons they don't get asked those questions is that they have no central leading figure and organisation with a long history of controversial involvement with politics.

The fact is, I am not against "anti catholic bias" so much when it is directed at the Vatican and the Pope rather than ordinary Catholics. Continually holding the Vatican up as responsible for its policies, and constantly reminding people that it's an organisation with a great deal of clout that still holds tight to some 12th century ideals of public policy is probably a good idea. While it comes in for more stick than other churches, I don't think that imbalance would be best served by laying off Mother Church.

On the other other hand, "Pope Still Catholic" really isn't new or interesting, and in that sense I agree that the question and furore surrounding it wasn't exactly journalism's best minds at work.

Mr Anonymous,

There's an interesting combination of straw-manning and correlation/causation mixups in your post.

Catholics and other "pro family values" people may dispute this, but on individual levels condoms prevent the risk of HIV infection. If I have sex with someone who is HIV positive, I am less likely to catch the disease if I use a condom than if I do not. This is not just statistical correlation, there is also a very good biochemical mechanism why this is so.

But if I have lots and lots of sex with prostitutes in a part of the world where HIV is rife, no matter whether I use a condom or not my risk is still substantially increased. If I am a virgin girl in a part of the world where sex with a virgin is believed by some folk practitioners to be a cure for HIV, my risk is substantially increased. There are many more factors involved than simply the distribution of condoms, and quite frankly the idea that UNAIDS or any other HIV-prevention groups do nothing except walk around throwing condoms at people is ridiculous as well as insulting.

The idea that there is an either/or, that one can either give people condoms or change their habits but not both, is a myth perpetuated by organisations like the Catholic Church who oppose condoms and other forms of birth control for reasons entirely unrelated to their efficacy as an infection-prevention tool.

Additionally, if you don't cherry pick your findings you will see lots of evidence that condom use as part of a broad strategy of education can reduce HIV infection rates around the world.

What is for certain is that condom use is neither a causal nor exacerbating factor in HIV infection rates, and no statistics measured so far would support such a wild-eyed claim. The kinds of sexual behaviours which perpetuate sub-saharan Africa's immense HIV infection rates tend to stem from reliance on mystic mumbo jumbo and patriarchial power structures which give women much less agency over their own sexual lives, neither of which the Catholic Church is against in principle, as long as they're the ones doing it.

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