The AIDS Libel

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I was going to let the latest round of outrage about the Pope, condoms and AIDS pass without throwing in my two cents, but then Jeff Goldberg went and linked to David Rothkopf's list of the world's "biggest losers," which includes Benedict XVI ("a creepy old ex-Hitler Youth member," in Rothkopf's words) for his supposed contribution to "massive death and suffering" in Africa. It's almost as if Jeff's trying to get a rise out of me!

So: I could respond to Rothkopf's claim, and others like it, by suggesting that the Pope's "chastity, not condoms" message to Africans struggling with the HIV epidemic has at least somewhat more evidence behind it than you'd think from the media drumbeat surrounding the issue. But I think the more apposite response is to ask Rothkopf for his evidence that the Vatican's refusal to promote condom use has contributed to disease and death on a grand scale. Do religious Africans have higher infection rates than the irreligious? Do heavily-Catholic populations contract HIV in higher numbers than Muslim, Protestant, or animist populations? Are frequent mass-attenders more likely to contract the disease than infrequent churchgoers? Do graduates of Catholic schools have higher infections than their peers? Are Africans who seek treatment at Catholic hospitals more likely to pass the disease along than people who get their medicine from secular institutions?

"The most striking thing about these articles claiming the Vatican makes Africans die from AIDS is the dearth of factual material," Brendan O'Neill wrote during the last spasm of outrage on this front. His cursory look at the data suggested that no, there was no correlation between being the sort of African most likely to listen to the Pope about sex and being the sort of African most likely to contract HIV. But that was several years ago: Perhaps some new evidence has come to light that Rothkopf would like to share with us. If he has any, I will happily publish it.

In the interim, though, I would suggest that he take a step back and consider that Benedict XVI is the head of an international institution that does as much to fight disease and poverty as any NGO in the world. The Church runs hospitals, clinics, and schools; it channels hundred of millions of dollars in donations from the developed world to the wretched of the earth; it supports thousands upon thousands of priests, nuns and laypeople who work in some of the most difficult and dangerous conditions in the world. And it does so based on the same premises - an attempt to be faithful to the commandments of Jesus Christ - that undergird the Pope's insistence on preaching chastity, rather than promoting prophylactics. There are many other NGOs working in Africa that proceed from different premises, and take a different attitude toward matters sexual as a result, and if David Rothkopf prefers their approach that's perfectly understandable. But unless he's willing to tell the Catholic Church that it should fold up its charitable operations in the developing world and go home, I'd prefer to be spared the lectures on how the Pope is responsible for "massive death and suffering" among populations for whom Catholic institutions have provided lifelines beyond counting over the years, just because he isn't willing to to use his pulpit to preach the importance of playing it as safe as possible, health-wise, while you're committing what the Church considers mortal sin.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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