REIGNITING THE BATTLE
By Elias K. Bongmba
Thursday, March 19, 2009.
On his maiden visit to Africa, Pope Benedict XVI has reignited the controversy over the use of condoms to prevent further spread of HIV/AIDS. The Pontiff’s position which has shocked many Africans has come at a time when some of us are wondering if the Cameroonian and Angolan economies (the two countries that the Pope is visiting) can withstand a papal visit.
The Pontiff’s comments on condoms are unfortunate and since we do not have any vaccine that could stop the spread of the HIV virus, the Holy Father’s rejection of condoms place him squarely on the wrong side of the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Press reports claim that The Pontiff said that condoms were not the answer to the fight against HIV/AIDS on the continent. He also said that advocating the use of condoms could make the problem worse. He has recognized that HIV/AIDS is "a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone,” but insisted that “it cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems".
The Holy Father’s comments today are consistent with his position on HIV/AIDS. When he assumed the leadership of the Catholic Church he told a group of selected African clergies that HIV/AIDS could not be cured with the use of condoms. He also said: "The traditional teaching of the church has proven to be the only safe way to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids."
The Holy Father also said that the lives of Africans were threatened by condoms and other things. He noted that core African family values were being threatened by divorce, abortion, prostitution, human trafficking and a mentality that accepts contraception. The Pontiff thinks that HIV/AIDS can best be controlled through abstinence and fidelity. He is aware and has stated that these problems have come about because of what he has called "a deficit of ethics in economic structures." He acknowledges that the church can make a moral and spiritual contribution to the fight against these problems.
Many people who know the devastation HIV/AIDS has caused cannot but be appalled by the fetishization of the condom by religious leaders for several reasons.
First, some of the positions on condoms articulated by the Holy Father do not square with what we know. For example, as far as I know, most physicians, public health officials, and volunteers who work with HIV/AIDS have never claimed that condoms are the answer to HIV/AIDS.
Second, the Holy Father also claims that condoms have made the HIV/AIDS crisis worse. This is also not the case. The position the Pontiff and other critics of condoms advance is that in promoting condoms, we are in effect telling people to go ahead and have sexual intercourse. Such an assumption ignores the historical development of HIV/AIDS prevention messages in Africa, especially the ABC strategy which advised people to abstain, be faithful, and use a condom. Many health officials endorsed this approach because it allowed people to promote condoms along with other prevention strategies.
What the Holy Father ignores is the fact that a consistent campaign that encourages the proper use of condoms would actually reduce infections. Therefore, to argue that condoms would make the situation worse is just not correct. The view often expressed by some members of the clergy that condoms would encourage more people to engage in sexual intercourse than they would have if they did not have condoms, is wrong. It may be true that some people who would not consider engaging sexual intercourse may indeed do that because a condom is available.
However, there is no reason to conclude that the number of people who would make such a decision is so large that it would offset the overall benefits of promoting, distributing, and encouraging the right use of condoms. What opponents of condoms ignore is that if people are educated about the correct way of using the right condoms, condoms would indeed protect the spread of deadly viruses.
Thirdly, my suspicion here is that the Pontiff has already established a fundamental opposition to condoms and for that reason he has concluded that condoms will make the situation worse. This position cannot be any further from the reality. It is clear that the opposition to condoms is not only grounded on the false view that it would encourage people to have sexual intercourse, but the Pontiff’s opposition is also linked to the question of contraception.
While it is not my intention to criticize Catholic teaching on contraception, which I personally believe has outlived its usefulness for our day, I should point out that it is time that African leaders and Christians recognized that we need creative thinking in order to address these issues rather advance positions that have not worked, even if those positions have been part of church teaching.
It sounds rude to say that on contraception, the Catholic Church does not speak for all people. But it is also a reality, and we should recognize that and work with other communities of discourse to address questions about contraception in a creative way that simply call on people to stop using condoms when millions of lives are at stake.
Furthermore, I think that in a world where population explosion remains a great problem it is time religious communities came together and rethink the Church’s position on contraception.
I should also point out that The Pontiff has made statements that are worthy of everyone’s consideration. For instance he recognizes that HIV/AIDS cannot be addressed with money alone. He claims correctly, that problem has grown out of control because of “a deficit of ethics in economic structures.” He has stated that declining family values and the growth of prostitution, and human trafficking has contributed to the problem.
I can only point out here that there is enormous literature on the HIV/AIDS epidemic today that support some of these claims, and many researchers have called for a realignment of structural and economic forces by African leaders so that they can address the issues that push individuals into sex work and leave young women vulnerable because they do not have the social and economic power to assert control over their sexuality.
However, we must recognize that the Pontiff’s statements about other causes of the HIV/AIDS pandemic are overshadowed by his concern and fear of the imagined problems that condoms would cause. Condoms remain a central concern of his and every other argument is subordinated to his fight against condoms. This is unfortunate because the relentless condemnation of condoms places the Christian tradition on the side of infection and death.
In my book Facing a Pandemic: The African Church and the Crisis of Aids, I have argued that a condom is nothing but a device invented to prevent sexual partners from sharing bodily fluids which could pass on the HIV virus. It is only a device that has been made to fulfill this function if it is used correctly. I know there was no condom in the Garden of Eden. We use many things today that were not in the garden either.
The question therefore is; why do certain church leaders want to impose a moratorium on condoms and encourage people to abstain from using condoms. Why do they want to place people at the risk of being infected with the virus? In an age when a large number of people in the church are fighting to protect life, does it make sense that we ignore condoms which could save lives? We have all heard the argument which was last articulated on the world stage by President Yoweri Mosuveni of Uganda that condoms do not work all the time. What we forget is that when they work, they work and save lives.
To those who follow the spread of HIV/AIDS, it is difficult to understand why some Church leaders still oppose condoms. I am tempted to think that condoms are just a “victim” because the real issue here might be the church’s difficulty in coming to terms with sexuality. We act as if abstinence is the norm. Abstinence is not the norm and that is the reason why abstinence only campaigns do not work. We are sexual beings. Our religious leaders have a responsibility to help us exercise the gift of sexuality in its proper context.
We have a grave emergency and a silent war that is killing millions of lives, especially in Africa. HIV/AIDS will go down in history as one the greatest killers. Therefore it is time for Africans to tell the Pope’s condemnation of condoms “thanks, no thanks.” I believe human sexuality is an adult action and the decision to engage in sexual intercourse should be done with respect to the lives of others and in the right context.
But where human frailty has led individuals to consider sexual activity out of context, we should promote the public health message that condoms have an important role and we should also encourage people to use condoms in order to prevent infections. If our political leaders have failed to take HIV/AIDS as the greatest challenge the human community faces today, religious leaders have joined the conspiracy against life with their call that people should abstain from distributing or using condom.
Elias K. Bongmba holds the Harry and Hazel Chavanne Chair in Christian theology at Rice University, Houston, Texas, where he is also a professor of Religious Studies.