The Church, AIDS and Africa, Cont.

My comments on the question of Pope Benedict's culpability for mass suffering and death in Africa has generated quite a lot of reader email, as you might expect. Here's a representative note, from a reader who works for a "leading global health organization":

... while I probably wouldn't accuse the Pope directly of causing "massive death and suffering," here are some facts: many, if not most, Catholic hospitals and dispensaries in Africa refuse to give out condoms. Their staff, both Africans and Westerners, constantly promote the myths, half-truths and outright falsehoods about birth control that perpetuate early births, poor family planning, a whole host of STIs (including HIV) and, by extension of all this, crushing, grinding poverty and maternal and child mortality. This is fact in every African country I have worked in.

That the Catholic Church provides - through its hospitals, clinics, schools and organizations like Catholic Relief Services - many other incredibly valuable services to people in the developing world, including Africans, makes it deserving of praise; but equally, it does not excuse the Church from knowingly doing direct harm to public health efforts in the region of the world most affected by HIV/AIDS.

And here's another:

It seems that your main source of frustration is the hyperbolic - these comments will result in "massive death and suffering" - reaction to Pope Benedict's comments.  I wonder what you think about the more subtle assertion that Pope Benedict's comments may contribute to confusion and misperception about how HIV/AIDS is transmitted, whether or not condoms are effective in preventing transmission, and to what extent that confusion may counteract or negate the work of public health officials attempting to reduce the rate of transmission. Both here at home, and in Africa, providing education and accurate information about how HIV is transmitted is an important part of the battle ... Clearly the Pope has the obligation to advocate Catholic principles and dogma, but need that advocacy come at the expense (potentially) of established science/medicine?  Would it not have been possible to advance the Catholic position preferring abstinence without intimating that condoms are not an effective tool in preventing the spread of HIV? 

It seems to me that much of the anger directed at the Pope's comments is a response to something new (condoms are not the solution) as opposed to something old (we prefer abstinence).  I wonder whether a statement that ignored the condoms issue entirely would have been received as negatively, and attacked as ferociously.

I agree with the second emailer that the Pope would have been well-served to confine himself to remarks promoting monogamy and fidelity, and shouldn't have waded into social-science-y pronouncements about the overall efficacy of condom-promotion efforts. But the anger that Benedict's remarks generated isn't a new thing by any stretch. John Paul II may have been more circumspect in his criticisms of the prophylactic approach to AIDS-fighting than his successor, but he was regularly accused of having "killed millions" of helpless, hopeless Africans even so.

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

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