An African Pope Won't Change the Vatican's Views on Condoms and AIDS

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As symbolically powerful as it would be to have a non-European lead the Catholic Church, Benedict's successor will promote the faith's traditional teachings on sex.

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Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana during this year's Ash Wednesday mass at the Vatican (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

Since Pope Benedict XVI did what had previously been unthinkable and almost unprecedented on February 11—submitting his resignation with what amounted to little more than a two-week notice—there has been speculation that the Catholic Church could see a non-European pope. "It's highly possible," New York City's Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan told the New York Times last week.

Much of the initial focus was on Latin America because the region "represents 42 percent of the world's 1.2 billion-strong Catholic population, the largest single block in the Church," as Reuters reported on the day of Benedict's announcement. "Two senior Vatican officials recently dropped surprisingly clear hints about possible successors. The upshot of their remarks is that the next pope could well be from Latin America."

But in the two weeks since then, much of the successor buzz—and the bookie's odds, if you place any value on handicapping the cardinals at the papal conclave—has focused on Africa. Two men in particular: Ghana's Cardinal Peter Turkson and Nigeria's Cardinal Francis Arinze. Turkson, who was appointed by Benedict in 2009 to lead the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, has reportedly emerged as one of the leading choices. The National Catholic Reporter does a fairly good job explaining the frenetic media narrative when it profiled Turkson last week: "Nothing's sexier from a media point of view than the idea of a 'black pope.' The notion of what's traditionally seen as the planet's ultimate First World institution being led by a black man from the southern hemisphere has an undeniable magic."

"If Africa could produce great Catholic saints, like St. Augustine and St. Monica," wrote one reader in The Observer, the Ugandan weekly. "Why can't we afford another pope in this modern era?"

Richard Dowden made the case in his column "Why an African Pope Could Save the Church" for The Times on February 18. "An African pope could bring a revitalising spiritual enthusiasm and passion," Dowden argued, claiming that African Catholic leaders are more "respected and trusted when they speak out on social and economic justice... than their Western counterparts."

Even if the next pontiff were chosen from Ghana or Nigeria it's extremely unlikely that he would be a progressive, of course. The arch-conservative German-born Benedict has appointed a majority of the cardinals who will elect his successor sometime in March at the papal conclave. It is also highly likely that even an African pope would continue Benedict XVI's and the Vatican City's refusal to encourage condom use in the fight against HIV/AIDS. This policy has had serious, long-lasting consequences across the global south—especially Africa.

Earlier this month the New York Times reported on the Roman Catholic Church's "explosive growth" in Africa. The continent is home to the world's largest growth in Catholics.

With 16 percent of the world's Catholics now living in Africa, the church's future, many say, is here. The Catholic population in Africa grew nearly 21 percent between 2005 and 2010, far outstripping other parts of the world. While the number of priests in North America and Europe declined during the same period, in Africa they grew by 16 percent.

There were plenty of statistics in that report but the Times neglected to mention another data point: Sub-Saharan Africa is home to two-thirds of all people living with HIV/AIDS. That's about 24 million people, according to amfAR. Condoms are the most reliable method to prevent HIV infection—but official Catholic doctrine rejects condom use as sinful. The Church focuses on abstinence before marriage and fidelity within marriage.

Pope Benedict XVI described the HIV/AIDS pandemic as primarily an "ethical problem" as he presented his vision for the Church's future in Africa during his second visit to the continent in November 2011. The comments were delivered in a 135-page pastoral document as His Holiness wrapped a three-day pastoral trip to the heavily Catholic West African nation of Benin. "The problem of AIDS in particular clearly calls for a medical and a pharmaceutical response," it says. "This is not enough however. The problem goes deeper. Above all, it is an ethical problem."

The solution is a "spiritual and human awakening", said the pontiff. That includes sexual abstinence.

Benedict's comments echoed statements he made during his first trip to Africa in 2009 after "he caused a global outcry when he said using condoms "increase" the problem of HIV/AIDS," reported Deutsche Press in the pontiff's native Germany. "You can't resolve it with the distribution of condoms," the pope told reporters during his 2009 trip to Cameroon.

Unsurprisingly, the pope's disavowal of condoms was very unpopular among secular aid workers. "The Pope's 2009 declaration created an uproar and confused believers," Eugide Bashombana, HIV Officer for aid group Oxfam, told Reuters in 2010. "We found a certain resistance to accept condoms—it was very difficult."

An African pope is unlikely to have a different perspective on condom use. Turkson has co-signed the papal doctrine on abstinence, condoms, and HIV/AIDS. Condoms give Africans "a false sense of security," the Ghanaian cardinal claimed in 2009, maintaining they are often used improperly. "People think that using condoms will prevent the spreading of AIDS but it is actually helping the disease spread."

Turkson has added an extra dose of homophobia to his homilies. Turkson and other African clerics blasted United Nations Secretary General Ban ki-moon after his January 2012 address to the African Union. Ban claimed that some African nations have treated gays and lesbians like "second-class citizens or even criminals." Turkson claimed that was an "exaggeration," reported the National Catholic Register.

That's no "exaggeration." Same-sex acts are currently illegal in at least 38 of 54 African countries. Four nations—Mauritania, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan—boast the death penalty for gays or same-sex activity.

Benedict's last day as pope will be Friday, March 1. The papal conclave is scheduled to begin its deliberations in mid-March, if not sooner. A non-European pope would signal a dramatic new face for the Church—but window dressing, at best. The Catholic Church's policies on sexuality, condoms, and HIV/AIDS—especially in the developing world—will remain firmly in place.

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Rod McCullom has produced and written for ABC News, NBC, Ebony, The Los Angeles Times, and The Advocate. He writes regularly at rod20.com.

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