Monday, March 23, 2009

Benedict, Bush, and Condoms in Africa: The Rest of the Story

There’s a fascinating array of op-ed statements the last several days, re: the pope’s recent statement that condoms not only don't solve the problem of AIDS in Africa, but make it worse (1). Much of the commentary in the secular media in the U.S. is critical of the pope’s statement. Newspapers with a history of promoting the faith-based abstinence-only approach of the Bush administration and the Republican party, however, have been publishing editorials applauding the pope for standing up for morality.

A statement that particularly impresses me is Pius Kamau’s “Pope’s Words Poison” in the Denver Post (2). Some choice quotes:

A misfortune of the AIDS epidemic in Africa has been intellectual dishonesty, ignorance and tribal superstition. So much bizarre and retrograde thinking has led to the needless deaths of millions. . . . Pope Benedict's pronouncement serves to confuse an already murky picture and to reinforce ignorance. It is particularly unfortunate because its source is "infallible." To many poor, downtrodden Africans, the Vatican is just this side of Heaven and the pope's voice is that of Jesus Christ. . . .

I can't be faulted if I conclude, like many others, that Pope Benedict lacks empathy for his black flock. Driving all pronouncements by the Vatican against condoms is the Vatican's abhorrence of all forms of contraception, no matter the consequence of their denial. As Rebecca Hodes of the Southern African Treatment Action Campaign said, "Religious dogma is more important than the lives of Africans."

That millions more might die and millions of kids orphaned is insignificant for the Pope as it was to narrow-minded African leaders like Thabo Mbeki.

I agree with the pope when he advocates abstinence, celibacy and marital sex. In Africa, they are alone insufficient. Pope Benedict must acknowledge that human beings are fallible; our sins shouldn't cause our demise.

In the end, the pope's words were unwise, shortsighted and unjustified.

Pius Kamau is a surgeon in Colorado who was raised in Kenya. His article notes that he has had many family members and friends die of AIDS.

Writing in the Hartford Courant (3), Steven Michels maintains that Benedict puts doctrine ahead of lives:

In any case, the real problem with the church's position is not that it's shoddy science; it is that it's immoral. It means more people will get infected, fewer people will get treatment and more people will die.

Michels notes the outrage recently directed by some Catholic groups at Connecticut legislators Andrew McDonald and Michael Lawlor recently, and wonders if people will challenge Benedict’s dangerous statements about the link between condoms and AIDS control in Africa as fervently as they have challenged McDonald and Lawlor:

It would be nice if the recent outrage directed at Connecticut state Rep. Michael P. Lawlor and state Sen. Andrew McDonald and their call for transparency in parish finances were matched by an equal or greater outrage at the pope's disregard (if not contempt) for the people of Africa. It would seem we have come to expect so little from our religious leaders.

When the pope goes to Africa and tells people that using condoms is wrong, he is not a preacher of love; he is a preacher of death.

Michels is an associate professor of political science at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, National Catholic Reporter’s “inhouse Vaticanologist (and pinch-hitting papal spinmeister)” John Allen puts a positive spin on the pope’s statement—as American Catholic centrists in general are doing—in an article entitled “Pope’s Condom Message Resonates with Many” (4).

I find it particularly disheartening to read the commentary at this and other websites of the American Catholic center. Sadly, it validates Pius Kamau’s judgment that many of us (including large numbers of American Catholics) have come to trade in intellectual dishonesty and ignorance as we defend our positions on sexual morality—positions that ultimately have far more to do with politics than religion. This commentary also proves Dr. Kamau right when he observes that many of us seem intent on consigning millions of our African brothers and sisters to death in order to uphold our cruel dogmatic politicized positions about sexual morality in the face of common sense and human decency.

The designation of John Allen as NCR’s inhouse Vaticanologist and pinch-hitting papal spinmeister is by Craig B. McKee of Hong Kong in another current NCR thread (5).

Meanwhile, right-wing Catholic publications like Denver’s Catholic News Agency are promoting the research of Edward C. Green, a Harvard AIDS prevention researcher who denies the efficacy of condoms as a way of ending AIDS in Africa (6). Interestingly enough, though Green’s position is being offered by all kinds of right-wing websites recently as a defense of the pope’s statement, I find none—not one—of the publications citing Green makes any mention at all of the fact that President Bush appointed him in July 2003 to his Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (7) (8).

Why not, I wonder—why not mention the connection between Edward C. Green and Bush’s failed abstinence-only approach? Why not mention the political connections of someone who offers scientific verification that condoms don’t solve the AIDS crisis in either Africa or the United States, and who is being promoted as a trustworthy expert in the field?

To his credit, David Gibson is one of the few folks writing about Benedict’s statements re: condoms and Africa recently who notes Green’s ties to the Bush administration. At his Pontifications blog, Gibson writes (9),

In “AIDS and the Churches: Getting the Story Right,” an April 2008 story in First Things, Edward C. Green and Allison Herling Ruark argue that condoms are not the answer at all. They also cite a 2007 article in The Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal, which listed "Ten Myths" about AIDS prevention, including that condoms are ineffective.

They don't mention that the author of the piece was James D. Shelton, MD, science advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development under George W. Bush. Shelton apparently isn't as categorical about condoms (the Lancet piece is behind a firewall) as the First Things authors, either.

Interesting, isn't it? Look at who's defending Benedict's stand on condoms, and you immediately bump into "experts" from the Bush administration, people who helped craft and fight for his failed faith-based abstinence-only approach to issues of human sexuality. They're everywhere now, propping up Benedict's counterfactual, dogmatic, and highly politicized statement about condoms and Africa.

As if Bush were still president . . . . As if his policies had not failed, and spectacularly so . . . . As though it is not time to try something new, something that might work, for a change, and that might respect scientific findings and put saving human lives first and foremost . . . .

Benedict's statement about condoms in Africa is powerfully allied to the failed faith-based abstinence-only policies of the Bush administration, which were driven by the political needs of the religious right and not by authentic religiosity or human decency. In offering his judgment on condoms in Africa, Benedict seeks to bolster that failed (and anti-religious and inhumane) approach to issues of sexuality.

He does so to defend politicized views of sexual morality which the church believes it is essential to maintain in developed nations. Unfortunately, those who pay the price for that Western political agenda are the poor people of Africa, whose lives are at stake as pastoral leaders of the developed nations play callous games with their lives.