Abstinence, Not Condoms, Says Pope Upon Leaving for Africa

Just before he left for his current trip to Africa, the Pope told pilgrims in St Peter’s Square that he wanted to reach out to Africans suffering from hunger, disease and injustice.

He chose a strange way to initiate that exchange.

On the Papal plane on the way to the Cameroon, the Pope repeated what many hoped would be a discarded Papal message: condoms, rather than preventing AIDS increases the problem. He suggests the solution lies in a spiritual and human awakening, friendship with those who suffer, and abstinence. Now if the Pope cannot convince Roman Catholic priests to abstain from sex, especially abusive sex with children it is hard to imagine that he can convince ordinary people for whom sexuality is part of life that they should abstain.

Papal pronouncements against condom use and against sexual expression outside of life-long monogamous heterosexual marriage are so frequent that one cannot help but wonder why they still get so much media coverage. They are by no means the man bites dog story media love. But in the face of the enormous and continuing tragic effect of the AIDS pandemic and the demonstrated evidence that condom use is an essential component of efforts to prevent further transmission every opportunity to correct the misinformation inherent in the claim condoms increase the incidence of AIDS.

True, if you never have sexual contact, you will not get sexually transmitted AIDS and you don’t need condoms.

But, if you do have sexual contact, the only way you can dramatically reduce your risk of getting AIDS is by using a condom. Women who are faithful in marriage have gotten AIDS from husbands who are not so faithful. Even monogamous couples have transmitted AIDS when one partner contracted the disease through intravenous drug use. Nuns have contracted AIDS after sexual abuse by priests. Two such reports were provided to the Vatican by religious sisters working in Africa. The reports were ignored.

Data from WHO, UNAIDS, the US Centers for Disease Control, all clearly show that while condoms are not 100% effective, they are highly effective in preventing the spread of HIV while having sex and not using condoms is very risky business.

We don’t need to revisit all that data or repeat the appropriate abuse heaped on church officials who continue to lie about condoms. What we could do is look more closely at how the Vatican’s view of human sexuality encourages such pronouncements. When you believe that sex is itself suspect and only redeemed through marriage and reproduction and when a major criteria for priesthood is renouncing sexual activity, even within marriage, it is easy to preach abstinence. And let’s be clear, in the case of a risk of AIDS, even married couples are told that abstinence is what is called for by God.

The need to change attitudes toward the basic goodness of human sexual relations as part of preventing the spread of AIDS was brought home to me a few weeks ago when I participated in a small meeting of international experts who are working to take a long view toward eradicating HIV and AIDS. The group was part of a project called AIDS2031.

2031 will mark 50 years since the first report of AIDS. While much progress has been made, there are many challenges. One of those challenges is the fact that in spite of the enormous investments that have been made in condom provision and education, too many couples still do not use them. So a religious message that says they don’t work is more likely to contribute to the transmission of AIDS than reduce it.

A long term view of the problem will include serious work on culture, ethics and sexuality and will include a deeper understanding of the meaning of sexuality. The work being done by theologians like Mark Jordan, Mary Hunt, and Christine Gudorf, that seeks to situate sexuality in a justice paradigm rather than contractual or sacramental heterosexual marriage could make a real contribution to the work of anthropologists, sociologists and other social scientists in developing new models and in educating millions of people, especially young people.

This will require a new understanding of religion by those working on HIV and AIDS. Right now, the focus of major AIDS agencies is on institutional religion and the role it plays in service provision as well as on convincing the male clerics with good wardrobe not to fight against prevention. Let’s hope that a new alliance between progressive religious thinkers, scholars and activists can augment if not replace the current alliance.