I would always prefer to avoid criticizing other religious beliefs, opting instead for simply offering an alternate view. I find myself, however, struggling in order to deal with the Pope’s stand on condom use in the battle against HIV/AIDS in a way that is not derogatory. I understand that Catholicism takes an official stand against contraception – well, that isn’t quite true – I accept that it does, even though I do not understand it. In the case of HIV/AIDS, however, the issue isn’t contraception, but the very life of millions of Africans.
During his stop in Cameroon, the Pope issued a statement that condoms only increase the problem of HIV/AIDS. I am afraid I have no alternative but to claim that this is not just bad science, but bad theology. Put simply, the perennial call of the prophets to care for widows and orphans, and the commandment to “not kill”, require that we do all we can to prevent the conditions that result in widows and orphans in the first place. With 22 million Africans already infected with HIV, should it not be obvious that abstinence isn’t a life choice that most will make, at least in the short run?
Admittedly, condoms are not foolproof. At 87% effectiveness, however, the benefits are too significant to ignore. In many places in Africa, having multiple extramarital sex partners is a tradition – an ingrained practice that will take more than a Papal declaration to overcome. While appealing for fidelity is admirable, it is not enough when one partner is already infected. Abstinence – total abstinence even in marriage – would be necessary to stop the spread of the disease through sexual contact. The ideal and the reality are light years apart.
In the meantime, the Papal declaration that condoms are wrong is likely to carry far more weight than the appeal for abstinence – condoms are a non-traditional introduction to Africa and are already viewed suspiciously. Abstinence, on the other hand, is not just non-traditional but almost an anathema. People will continue to die, after having spread the disease to those who would become widows. The numbers of orphans will continue to rise.
Is it necessary to guarantee the existence of orphans so we can have the warm, fuzzy feeling of minimally caring for them? This is not what the prophets had in mind, I am quite sure.