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CFC in the News - 2009

Sunday tribune

Papal Bull

Justine McCarthy

22 March 2009

Timing is everything, even for popes. Choosing his first visit to Africa wearing his pontifical hat as the occasion to denounce condoms as part of Aids prevention was less than inspired choreography for Pope Benedict XVI. He touched down in Cameroon to find himself in the eye of yet another international storm. Back in Europe, where the predictability of such pronouncements usually induces no more than a weary sense of déjà vu, politicians were queuing up in France, Belgium and Germany to berate his folly. The editorial in the New York Times said the pope "deserves no credence when he distorts scientific findings".


The pontiff's next stop after Cameroon was oil- and diamond-rich Angola, where more than 55% of the population is Roman Catholic and two-thirds of the people live on less than $2 a day. One in four children dies before their fifth birthday. Many are casualties of HIV and Aids as the epidemic newly infects 7,400 people every day. In Africa, 12.1 million children have lost one or both of their parents to Aids. The doctrinal furore over a scrap of latex seems somewhat disproportionate.


On his flight to Africa, His Holiness told the media entourage accompanying him that "the scourge of Aids cannot be overcome with the distribution of condoms which, on the contrary, increase the problem". He is wrong. Scientific and medical data prove him wrong.


"My reaction is that this represents a major step backwards in terms of global health education," said Professor Quentin Sattentau, an Oxford University expert in immunology.


Health and missionary workers assisting in the fight against HIV/Aids, some under the auspices of the Catholic Church, demonstrate by their work that they believe the pope to be wrong. The official policy of Ireland's overseas aid programme is an expression of how wrong he is. Irish taxpayers' money goes towards the purchase and distribution of condoms in Africa.


Ireland spends €148m combating HIV


Ireland is an active participant in the global fight against HIV/Aids; it had a seat on the board of the UN agency responsible for fighting Aids, UNAids, last year and is due to take up an alternate seat on the board of the Global Fund on HIV/Aids in May. Last year, Irish Aid, under the umbrella of the Department of Foreign Affairs, spent €148m combating HIV and other communicable diseases in Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Lesotho, Zambia and Malawi. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 22 million men, women and children living with HIV, accounting for 68% of the global total. Aids remains the primary cause of death in Africa.


"The pope was reiterating Vatican policy. Irish Aid supports many policies designed to decrease the spread of Aids by adhering to national policies in programme countries," said a department of foreign affairs spokeswoman. "Ireland supports information and education campaigns around condoms and the use of condoms, in combination with other prevention modalities such as abstinence, postponing first sex among youths, and faithfulness to one sexual partner. In Uganda, for instance, there has been a dramatic fall in the prevalence of the disease. In 1990, it affected 25% of the population compared to 6% now. That is the result of a multi-dimensional strategy that involves education and condoms. Ireland has spent more than €120m on combating Aids alone between 2001 and 2008."


It is a cause of persistent worry that 6.8 million people who need anti-retroviral medication are not receiving it.


'We're not throwing out condoms'


Concern, the charity founded in Ireland and headed for many years by Catholic priest Fr Aengus Finucane, has an active presence in Angola.


"We certainly do not think you can rule out condoms as part of an overall prevention strategy for HIV and Aids," says chief executive Tom Arnold. "I would be concerned if a consequence of the pope saying this was that Catholics there stopped using condoms. If they're good Catholics, they probably listen to what the pope says. The reality is that condom use is not a widespread practice but, if those people who do have access to condoms and for whom condoms are a de facto form of prevention were to stop using them, that would be a concern. We're not going around Africa throwing out condoms wherever we go but we follow a line about the prevention of illness which is in line with the UN and other development agencies. There has to be an acknowledgement that condom usage is part of the strategy."


Some commentators take a kindly view that Pope Benedict – previously known as "the pope's Rottweiler" when he was the prefect of Rome's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during the papacy of John Paul II – is out of touch because of his advanced age. Josef Alois Ratzinger will be 82 next month, having been born on 16 April 1927 in Markel am Inn in the German province of Bavaria. He has been a priest for 58 years and was the chief theological adviser to Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne at the Second Vatican Council. He became the 265th pope in April 2005, to the dismay of many liberal Catholics and advocates of women's, gay and married clergy's rights, who believed him to be staunchly conservative.


One of the most vocal lobby groups for liberal Catholics is the Washington DC-based Catholics for Choice, headed by Irishman Jon O'Brien. Reacting to Pope Benedict's utterances about condoms last week, O'Brien said: "The pope will find that few Catholics and even fewer medical personnel agree with his stance. Several bishops in Africa, including especially Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg in South Africa, have been outspoken in their support of the use of condoms.


"For the Catholic hierarchy to deny the role that condoms play in preventing the further spread of HIV is irresponsible and dangerous," he went on. "Not only that, the Catholic hierarchy has lobbied governments in the global north against the inclusion of funding for condoms in development aid programmes. The result is to deny the poorest of the poor in the global south the chance of protecting themselves by using condoms."


An opinion poll recently conducted on behalf of Catholics for Choice, in Ghana, Ireland, Mexico, the Philippines and the US, showed overwhelming support for condom use. Asked if "using condoms is pro-life because it helps save lives by preventing the spread of Aids", 90% of Catholics in Mexico, 86% in Ireland, 79% in the US, 77% in the Philippines and 59% in Ghana agreed.


"Unfortunately, the Catholic hierarchy position holds the most sway in the countries least able to deal economically and medically with the disease," said O'Brien.


It is the political aspect of the papal pronouncement that most infuriates Senator David Norris, who spearheaded the legal crusade to have homosexual relationships decriminalised in Ireland.


"I found it immensely depressing," said Norris. "I think it's a pity that he intervenes in these matters. I notice the usual Catholic apologists are around the place sticking up for him, but he's just wrong. The pope is a political figure and he has a huge political impact. At the Cairo population summit, they were in cahoots with the worst form of Islamic extremists to inhibit the rights of women and gay rights, and they were up to their ears with that well-known war criminal George Bush. It just shows the appalling damage caused by churches being politicised. They are providing the moral basis for corrupt African regimes to refuse to distribute condoms to prevent the spread of Aids and to put the money into their own pockets. The pope should stay out of these things. Regardless of what columnists like [David] Quinn and [John] Waters say about it, I have come across wonderful Irish Roman Catholic missionaries – priests and nuns – who do not suffer from the prohibition of the Vatican. It is very largely being ignored. But it plays to power, and that is the awful thing."


Rumoured Irish visit


There has been speculation that Pope Benedict might visit Ireland next September to commemorate his predecessor's visit in September 1979. It could be planned as part of a two-pronged diplomatic gesture to bring formal closure to the Troubles, with the Queen of England also visiting. The Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal Sean Brady, issued an invitation to Ireland after the pope's inauguration in 2005. After President McAleese met the pontiff in Rome in March 2007, she said he had told her Cardinal Brady had invited him to Ireland.


"I told the Holy Father that if he was minded to come and able to come, the government and myself as president and the people would regard it as a great privilege and honour," she said.


But the Ireland he would find 30 years after John Paul II's visit would be starkly different. For one thing, it is no longer a country where politicians are expected to offer blind allegiance to the teachings of the Catholic Church in how they run the country.


Timing is everything, even for popes. Benedict has sparked various international controversies with his traditionalist, orthodox utterances which many Catholics see as damaging to their church. How different things might have been, for instance, if the last papal election had happened a little earlier, before the retirement of the favourite, Cardinal Martini of Milan. He once expressed the opinion that, when it came to condoms and HIV/Aids, "condoms might be the lesser of two evils" for the spouse of an infected person.


Pope's record of angering Muslims, Jews and Homosexuals


Pope Benedict has managed to offend many of the world's biggest constituencies since his investiture in the Vatican.


* In 2006, he insulted Muslims across the planet when, in the course of addressing theologians at his old German university, he quoted a 14th-centruy emperor as saying that the prophet Mohammed brought "things evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The parliament of Pakistan adopted a resolution demanding an apology.


* His decision to lift an order of excommunication on Holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson - who said "not a single Jew died in a gas chamber" - lit a firestorm of controversy. German chancellor Angela Merkel accused the German-born pope of creating the impression that Holocaust denial, which is a federal crime in Germany, "is permissible."


* In his Christmas address to the Curla last year, he infuriated gay-rights advocates when he warned against homosexual relationships and said that blurring the distinction between male and female could lead to the "self-destruction" of the human race. "The tropical forests do deserve our protection," he said. "But man, as a creature, does not deserve any less."

The article originally appeared in the Sunday Tribune.