The facts show church's policy on Aids is right

Wed, Mar 25, 2009, 00:00

OPINION:ON HIS flight to Youndé, Pope Benedict XVI answered questions put to him by international journalists. Only a selective quote from one of his answers made the headlines around the world. A French journalist asked him about the Catholic Church’s attitude to the fight against Aids, writes VINCENT TWOMEY.

Defending the church’s commitment to the fight against Aids and the care of its victims, the pope also affirmed that the scourge cannot be resolved with the distribution of condoms: on the contrary, there is a risk of increasing the problem. This statement caused a tsunami of outrage in Europe. Why?

Firstly, the immovable stance of the church with regard to the rejection of contraceptives irrespective of the circumstances evidently touches a raw nerve with many European politicians and opinion makers. Questioning the condom questions the generally approved style of life.

Secondly, the rage of the one-time colonial powers has revealed once again their paternalism towards Africans. It is assumed that Africans are simply not capable of abstinence outside marriage or fidelity within it, which is at the core of the church’s solution. Abstinence and fidelity are not only effective, they are also more human – and they correspond more closely to the dignity of man and woman.

Thirdly, we Europeans are prone to simplistic technical solutions for humanly complex problems, indeed tragedies. We fall for trite slogans such as “Condoms help reduce Aids”. As a result, the church is attacked as though it were guilty of the deaths of millions in Africa.

The facts teach us otherwise. The percentage of non-Catholics in non-Islamic Africa is about 80 per cent. Irrespective of what the church preaches, it would not be heard by them. Likewise, it is unlikely that those Catholics who ignore the church’s teaching by having multiple sexual partners – one of the main ways of contracting HIV – would listen to the church, even if it were to endorse condoms, which it won’t.

The millions of condoms flung at Africans for a quarter of a century have increased not reduced the rate of infection. Dr Edward C Green, director of the Aids prevention research project at the Harvard Centre for Population and Development Studies, has confirmed this. He has said studies, including the US- funded Demographic and Health Surveys, have shown a consistent association between greater availability and use of condoms and higher HIV infection rates.

Green has also said the pope is correct in stressing monogamy. In his own words: “The best and latest empirical evidence indeed shows that reduction in multiple and concurrent sexual partners is the most important single behaviour change associated with reduction in HIV-infection rates .”

Under the inspiration of Irish missionary Sr Miriam Duggan, Uganda promoted abstinence and fidelity. It saw a 60 per cent reduction in casual sex – equivalent to a vaccine of 80 per cent effectiveness (Science, April 30th, 2004). Uganda’s approach has recently been adopted by Swaziland and Botswana, the two countries with the worst HIV epidemics.

African bishops have surely informed the pope of the huge commitment of Catholic health personnel to caring for the sick and dying. Catholic relief services lead in the distribution of anti- retroviral drugs, which have saved thousands of lives. By contrast, condoms are often available at bush clinics, while the minimal medication and equipment to treat curable illnesses are not.

The media ignored the pope’s actual proposals to fight Aids. He spoke of a double engagement.

The first involves the need to promote the humanisation of sexuality. This implies a rejection of sexuality as a mere consumer item and its replacement with an appreciation of sexuality as the expression of conjugal love.

The second aspect of the church’s engagement is what the pope called true friendship, above all for those who suffer, and the willingness to be with the suffering. Sacrifice and self-denial are only possible to those for whom God is a living reality. To promote this was the purpose of the pope’s trip to Africa.


Vincent Twomey, SVD, is professor emeritus of moral theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth