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    « The Kyoto Protocol: The Politics & The Economics Of Global Carbon Trade | Main | 'Five Past Midnight In Bhopal': By Dominique Lapierre & Javiar Moro »

    The Pope, The Condoms, HIV & Rise Of Catholicism In Africa

    Today being the World AIDS Day, is perhaps the best time to revisit the global hoopla created by the Pope's recent comments about the use of condoms by HIV positive prostitutes to limit the spread of HIV. His comments made headlines in almost all major international media outlets, and provoked a furious debate on contraception, HIV/AIDS and religion. 

    Pope Benedict XVI, Image Source:Wiki

    To recap the incident, German Catholic journalist Peter Seewald has published a book (titled 'Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times'), which features extensive interviews with Pope Benedict XVI. The book was published last month and just days prior to it's official release a somewhat controversial excerpt from the book was published - possibly 'accidentally' - by none other than the Vatican.

    The headline that followed across the globe was that the Pope has said that it is acceptable to use condoms but only in certain instances. The select circumstance for such a historic exception was apparently 'a male prostitute infected with HIV'. This was very quickly followed by a clarification via a spokesperson from the Vatican who said that the pontiff's comments included female and transsexual prostitutes also. 

    Careful reading of what the Pope actually said suggests that his supposed nod of approval for use of condoms by HIV positive prostitutes is actually far more nuanced and given with reservations. Here is what he actually said to Seewald, "There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection".

    Despite this being somewhat of a conditional support to the use of condoms, still in the light of the Roman Catholic Church's traditional views on sex and contraception his comment is indeed jaw dropping. The Catholic Church has always maintained that sex was a sacred act between a man and a woman within the context of matrimony. Roman Catholic Church does not recognize homosexual relations nor does it recognize heterosexual relations outside of matrimony even between consenting adults. The Humanae Vitae, an encyclical written by Pope Paul VI in the 1960s still serves as the basis for the Catholic Church's position on birth control. Humanae Vitae bans all forms of contraception (except the rhythm method), abortion and sterilization.

    The Roman Catholic Church has thus never officially endorsed the use of condoms before. Vatican's staunch opposition to use of condoms even by HIV positive individuals has been repeatedly criticized by numerous states, organizations and media. Forget prostitutes, even between a married couple where one partner is HIV positive and the other is negative, the Vatican does not support use of condoms to protect the unaffected partner.

    In fact not too long ago, just last year when Pope Benedict XVI, visited Africa and was asked about Vatican's controversial policy on the use of condoms by HIV positive people, he replied that the use of condoms could actually result in greater spread of HIV/AIDS (by promoting more indiscriminate sex), and that 'fidelity and abstinence' were the best ways to control HIV/AIDS (which has been the long standing position of the Catholic Church). These comments sparked a global outcry. Many had called such remarks ignorant and detrimental to the work being done to contain the global AIDS epidemic.

    To it's credit, the Catholic Church, despite it's somewhat peculiar views on sex and contraception - which may seem archaic to the outsiders - is actually very heavily involved in AIDS charities. But that charity work is focused on treatment of AIDS. In terms of prevention the only education that is generally offered is about importance of 'abstinence and fidelity'. Catholic charities unlike most other AIDS charities, by and large, do not advocate use of condoms nor do they typically provide free condoms to high risk populations or even already infected people. 

    So what, one might ask, has prompted this sudden change of heart? Is it the onslaught of criticism pretty much from all corners of the world that has opened the Vatican's eye and made it realize that condoms indeed help curtail the spread of HIV/AIDS? Is it finally hitting home that the Catholic Church's proposed solution of 'abstinence and fidelity' is woefully inadequate and unrealistic in halting the spread of HIV/AIDS? Is the Church's faith in it's own long held doctrine of chastity and sanctity of sex within matrimony been shaken a bit with the recent uncovering of the rampant sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in the US and the Europe?

    Any and all of the above are plausible, though less likely given the tenacity with which the Catholic Church had held on to it's views against all odds in the past. The Catholic Church isn't one to get rattled very easily and is well known to move at snail's pace when it comes to reform of any kind. A bit more cynical explanation would have to do with the politics and business of religion. Roman Catholic Church with it's one billion plus followers is the largest Christian group in the world and a very powerful organization. It's finances are complex and for most part shrouded in secrecy, but estimates of it's net worth range anywhere from few hundred million dollars to a billion plus. 

    Catholic Church's growth in the West, which has traditionally been it's strong domain, has recently slowed down. Growth in Africa, Asia, Latin America on the other hand is accelerating. Africa with a strong 158 million Catholic followers, represents one of the fastest growing demographics for the Catholic Church. Here is an excerpt from Rachel Donadio's article about the Pope's visit to Africa last spring, published in the NYT last year, "There is a lot at stake. By 2025, one-sixth of the world’s Catholics, or about 230 million, are expected to be African. The world’s largest seminary is in Nigeria, which borders on Cameroon in western Africa, and over all, Africa produces a large percentage of the world’s priests.

    Although the Vatican hierarchy is a deeply European institution, it too has changed over the years. Pope John XXIII appointed the first African cardinal in 1960. There are now 16 cardinals from Africa, out of 192. In his more than 25 years as pope, John Paul II made 16 trips to Africa, visiting 42 countries. In many ways, Africa would seem a lower priority for Benedict, who in his four years as pope has been deeply preoccupied with strengthening the church in Europe, where its status is increasingly diminished. But Africa is important for Benedict’s vision. Compared with Europe and the United States, African churches tend to take a more traditional line on issues like homosexuality."

    Catholicism in Africa presents it's own unique challenges, especially with regards to the Church's insistence on chastity. The social mores and expectations in the African culture around this delicate subject are vastly different from the Vatican. African culture by and large favors marriage even by priests. Even polygamy is not uncommon. Even in the context of sexual abuse, Africa presents a peculiar dilemma. The Church has had to cope with the sexual abuse scandals, which mostly involved minors in the West, but in Africa it's apparently the nuns who fear being raped by the priests. 

    Lisa Miller has written a fascinating article in the Newsweek (titled 'The Future Of Catholicism, Trouble With Celibacy), published in April 2010. Here is an excerpt from her article: "In Africa, the problem is somewhat more complex. Though many good priests do adhere to their chastity vows, says the Rev. Peter Schineller, a Jesuit priest who has spent 20 years in Africa, sex between consenting or semi-consenting adults is commonplace. Transgression against chastity vows by priests run the gamut from harassment all the way to fathering children; it's not criminal necessarily, but it's certainly against doctrine. "The violations are huge," says Schineller. As the Roman Catholic hierarchy continues to crow over its success and vitality in the global south—the growth rate in Africa and Asia has been about 3 percent a year, twice the rate worldwide—the African church may put mandatory clerical celibacy to its harshest test yet.

    The 2001 investigation by the National Catholic Reporter uncovered three separate reports of sexual abuse of religious sisters by priests. The story described priests raping religious sisters and then paying for their abortions; sisters fearing to travel in cars with priests for fear of rape; sisters appealing to bishops for help only to be told to go away. "Even when they are listened to sympathetically," wrote McDonald, "nothing seems to be done." Much less well documented is a broader problem: priests with unofficial "wives." "

    Add to this already complex mix, the problem of HIV/AIDS in Africa. Despite some recent studies showing promising declines in certain parts of Africa in terms of new HIV infection rates, the continent is still home to millions of infected people. Sub-Saharan Africa hosts 22.5 million HIV infected people. According to UNAIDS, 1.8 million adults and children were newly infected with HIV and 1.3 million died of AIDS in the sub-Saharan Africa just in 2009. To date the AIDS epidemic has orphaned an estimated 14.8 million children in sub-Saharan Africa. HIV epidemic is thus still a huge crisis in Africa. 

    Making claims that using condoms could actually spread the HIV/AIDS epidemic is irresponsible, dangerously ignorant and unethical. Advocating general population that they should use 'fidelity and abstinence' as a measure to contain the HIV/AIDS infection, in countries where not even all Catholic priests are celibate, where the Church by and large turns a blind eye to the priests' 'wives' and 'special friends' and ignores complaints of sexual harassment filed by nuns - reeks of hypocrisy. Leaving aside ethical considerations, even just from pure business point of view, some adjustment in the Church's views about use of condoms by HIV positive individuals was clearly long overdue if the Vatican hopes to continue to expand it's base in the continent ravaged by HIV/AIDS. 

    ~ Gauri

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