Monday, March 23, 2009

Roman vs. Trojan: The Pope in Africa

The first two facts which a healthy boy or girl feels about sex are these: first that it is beautiful and then that it is dangerous. - G.K. Chesterton

Is an 81 year old man able to identify with the suffering of AIDS? Is a lifelong academic stupid enough to think that condoms cause AIDS? Just how out of touch is the Church?

Yes, no, and not (respectively).

There's been tons of buzz lately about the Pope's recent comments on the AIDS epidemic in Africa, and the inadequacy of condoms to solve the problem. Some of this buzz has come from straightforward media coverage (like here and here), some has been a little more straightbackward (like here), and most has been personal speculation and cynicism by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. And all of it prompted a lot of personal reflection and reaction on my part, and so...without further ado, a personal interpretation of the two sides of the Pope's condom comments!

1) The Rational Side, or "The Pope cares about your body"

The Pope is clearly NOT saying that condoms are some kind of superconductor for STDs, as if wearing one during sex increases the likelihood of transmitting HIV. What he's saying is that
condoms are never 100% effective in protecting against STDs. And Benny is just agreeing with the CDC when he says that - according to a survey they did in Haiti (a third-world country, like much of Africa), "1 of 42 uninfected partners (2%) became infected with consistent condom use." And for any intelligent person, 1 out of 42 is one too many.

Too many people believe that using a condom = zero chance of disease or pregnancy. For you Friends fans out there, you can remember the famous "Well, they should put that on the box!" quote by Ross (above, 2 minutes in). And those misconceptions exist in the U.S., where there's even better sex ed than in Africa.

Abstinence is the only failsafe form of STD prevention. But don't take my word for it - Trojan condoms and the CDC both agree. And even beyond that, abstinence education has been extremely effective in lowering cases of HIV through programs like Abstinence Africa and Stay Alive. It only stands to reason that if we're serious about eliminating HIV for good, we ought to use the most effective means possible - abstinence.

2) The Spiritual Side, or "The Pope cares about your soul"

The fact of the matter is that condoms are morally unacceptable in every situation. They interfere with the procreative aspect of sex, degrading the beauty of sexuality. Condoms provide the illusion of consequence-free sexual encounters: "We definitely won't transmit disease if I wear a condom." They take the beauty of sex out of God's hands and force it into human control. So while the disease-prevention aspects of condoms are admirable, the immoral aspects make condom use wrong no matter what - it's the basic moral principle that the ends NEVER justify the means.

Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one… - Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI

The Church doesn't want her children to settle for "good enough." If we're called to be like Christ (1 Peter 1:16) and to "be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48), then we should never settle for anything less. The argument that "people are just going to have sex" just isn't good enough. Human nature can settle in and sin can overtake us, but it's our call to always strive for holiness - whether we live in Minnesota (brr!), Africa (warm!) or anywhere in between.

And behind all this is the crazy idea that an old German man in Rome loves us enough to challenge us - and I kinda like that idea!


P.S. I'm on page 1057 out of 1168 of Atlas Shrugged... And I can't WAIT to post about how much I love to hate Ayn Rand!

Now playing: Shawn McDonald - Take My Hand
via FoxyTunes


Ben said...

Rational side?

(I figured I wouldn't infect your facebook page with my cynical hate speech, and at the same time save myself from countless 'nuh uh!' responses in my inbox).

First off, the 'straightbackward' article you referenced is mind-numbingly accurate. Sure, the IAS Director's comments were overly simplified, but his message that African Catholics "rely on the spiritual guidance of the Pope" was correct. And that's exactly the point The manner in which impoverished, uneducated people understand the Pope's comments are in that same incredibly shallow, straightforward manner, with little or no understanding of nuance. So when the Pope says "the distribution of condoms...can even increase the problem [of HIV/AIDS]", people believe just that: CONDOMS SPREADS AIDS. As overly simplistic (and thus inaccurate) as that sounds to educated middle class Americans like you and me, it is exactly what an uneducated person derives from that statement. Just as your enthusiastic friend argued with the same "you're missing the steps in the Pope's reasoning" comment, I say with *thumbs up*, "Believe me, I get it." But I'm not the problem. The problem is that the African congregation is missing the steps in the Pope's reasoning.

Now you may say that I am not giving the Africans enough credit. Ok. Well then I hope the 185 million African Catholics prove me wrong. Mountains of data thus far suggest I'm not. As of 2007, nearly 63% of people living with HIV in the world live in... drumroll... sub-Saharan Africa. Shocker, I know. Not to suggest any correlation whatsoever, but for the record, Catholicism in Africa has risen nearly 25% between '00-'06. Just sayin'.

Ok that said, I'm not going to address your point on the Spiritual side of the argument. You are certainly entitled to your own beliefs regarding the moral implications of the use of contraception.

My final point is this: I understand that the Pope is trying to "challenge" his flock to live according to Church's teachings, especially the ones that are more difficult to follow on a daily basis. But as spiritual leader, he must comprehend that there is a very fine line he must walk. A line between religious idealism and... well, reality. Catholics EVERYWHERE freak out about this argument. Why should anyone (especially the Pope) bastardize their timeless beliefs regarding sexuality in order to indulge the progressively socially acceptable appetites of a changing world. Why should we stoop to their level? Why should we acquiesce?

Well, I contend that the Pope ESPECIALLY should acquiesce -- or rather, progress. Evolve. It is his duty as a leader to understand the world he lives in. Or he can just choose to crawl into the future kicking and screaming as the civilized world leaves behind the archaic principles that the Pope swore solemnly to protect. And this fine line between idealism and reality DOES exist. The Pope can stand up and speak out against HIV/AIDS, and even tout the Catholic Church's view towards contraception. But at the same time he can admit to the scientific reality that condoms WILL help stem the tide, even though abstinence is still the Church's official stance on the matter. True leadership is derived from understanding the reality of the situation and understanding humanity in general. Just ask Bristol Palin.

And so to finally answer your opening question, "Just how out of touch is the Church?" My answer is: very. Well, that is, if you are referring to the Papacy as 'the Church'. I have an inkling that a good number of educated Catholics (esp in the Western world) have found happiness in 'radical moderation' (as you cleverly used in your previous post). However I speak of a different moderation. I am referring to moderation of conviction. And this, to me, is a good thing. Sometimes, after all, the Pope is just 'being the Pope'. Unfortunately, I doubt that most African converts can look on the regular spoutings from Rome with the same acute skepticism.

That's all for now.

Becki said...

I would like to comment on what you say about prevention and "taking the beauty of sex out of God's hands and forcing it into human control." If we were to believe that we should not take things out of God's control, then one could argue that we should not take ANY medication to prevent or control a sickness that God intended us to have-- for instance using hand sanitizer in order to help prevent colds. After all, God controls whether or not we catch a cold, so using medication takes this out of God's hands, right? I know I am grossly simplifying the moral argument about sex here when I compare it to a cold, but I wonder just where the cutoff begins between being allowed to control our bodies and where we are not allowed to interfere in God's plan. I am curious how you feel about the new HPV vaccine. This vaccine prevents one of the most common cancers of women--cervical cancer. Is it morally wrong for a woman to receive this vaccine, since by the pope's reasoning it would lead her to having more sex, thinking she is now protected? Or are Catholics simply concerned about the possibility of condoms blocking the ability to create life?

All in all, I feel that this line of argument the pope brought into the condom/morality issue is weak. He may just be saying that "condoms are not 100% effective, so people should not rely on them," but just because hand sanitizer may not be 100% effective in preventing a cold doesn't mean I won't use it every chance I get when working with kids all day. And the widespread availability of hand-sanitizer does not make me more or less likely to want to spend my lifetime working with kids, either. It is just an added preventative measure to combat disease while performing an activity I love to do.

If the pope wants to make personal moral comments about the use of condoms, I have no problem with it. The reason we don't compare sex to a cold is that obviously there are different moral values at stake. But to say that the reason not to use them is that they aren't effective 100% of the time and even CAUSE more cases of disease to happen is what I have a problem with. He is trying to make a scientific or logical argument for why they are wrong, and base it on disease prevention instead of moral beliefs, and there just isn't any basis for that. The CDC and Trojan condoms DO agree that condoms are not effective all of the time. But they do not say that they "aggravate the problem" and shouldn't be used because of this fact. Those were the pope's exact words and to people educated on this topic this logic didn't make sense. The Vatican even recently made a statement correcting what the pope said from "aggravates the problem" to "risks aggravating the problem." Even they realized that the pope had been a bit ridiculous in his word choice on the topic. Someone in such a position of power should be more careful how he phrases things, especially when there are so many people out there taking everything he and the Bible says so literally.

An additional note that might interest you: In Japan, the birth control pill was illegal for 40 years, meaning that most people (80%) used condoms as a means of preventing pregnancy. Japan used to have the lowest rate of AIDS cases of any country. In 1999 birth control pills were made legal, meaning condoms were used less. As the use of birth control pills becomes more popular, the cases of AIDS-related deaths has increased drastically. Interesting correlation.

Sean said...


What are your thoughts about the rumblings of people saying that within a couple where one partner is infected with HIV/AIDS that condom use should be allowed because the unitive nature of sex is equal to the procreative nature?

Granted, you could say it's like Russian roulette since condom use isn't 100%, but given proper use, it's also higher than than the "1 in 42 chance" that you mention above. (Studies of people who've been properly educated and follow directions carefully with condoms have hinted at those 99% levels that are advertised)

Still for a little though experiment, I'd be interested in the circumstances of a couple, yet to be married, one HIV+, who would like a sacramental marriage. The need to consummate the marriage might be important to them. Does condom use deny the consummation given that it interferes with one of the purposes? Are the unitive and procreative equal? Is there a sacrifice that needs to be made here, despite or because of their love?

Also, could people argue that if we're saying condoms aren't 100% effective, then isn't using a condom still being open to the procreative, just not 100%? Which, let's be honest, NFP is essentially saying "We're open to the procreative, but if we do this right, we can try to give God some low odds of actually getting us to create life." (Like God wouldn't hit back to back aces on a split 10 at the blackjack table!) Some might say the condoms are an unnatural barrier, but then the same argument of the pill vs modern medicine comes up... we put lots of unnatural things into our bodies to lengthen our life, or give God's tools (our bodies) some help in allowing us to live longer, just like we're giving God's tools (our bodies) less of a chance (not 100%) of becoming pregnant on the pill.

Sometimes I feel that our Church doesn't do a good enough job of getting material out there or encouraging us to think on our own about these things using the tools and spiritual guidance they provide. There are hard questions that come with logic used and the limited statements we have on these issues. I would love to hear some more thoughts on them.

Keep up the blogging, I like getting a nice dose of Millea and his dissenters in my life (Dissenters, keep posting too)

WackyBasilisk said...

A few quick responses:

1. I echo Sean when I say keep commenting, followers and dissenters alike!

2. It is impossible to divorce the spiritual and moral aspects of this (or any) discussion from the practical aspects. As much as I believe that condoms encourage sex that could potentially spread disease, that argument is empty without a relationship with God involved.

If there's no discussion of God, why wouldn't I want people to have premarital sex in the first place?
If there's no concern for God, why would condoms be immoral?
But then again, if there's no mention of God, why would we even care enough to help people that we'll never meet, much less put an end to AIDS?

2. There's a fine line to walk between putting our lives in God's hands and not going to the hospital because "God will cure my pneumonia." i.e. Christian Scientists (NOT Scientologists) are missing the point.

The distinction I (and I believe the Church would) make is this: penicillin is a drug created by humans through God-given intellect to restore humans to health; a normal state of being. If penicillin is used correctly, there will come a time when you don't need it anymore. Heroin is a drug created by humans through God-given intellect to break down human will, freedom and health. If heroin is used correctly, you will only need more heroin to feel normal - it tears down your ability to live normally.

The idea is that we're rational beings created by a loving God to help one another on this earth - spiritually, medically, whatever. Condoms, regardless of the good that they do, damage the beauty of sexuality; they stop humans from being fully, beautifully human. Not that condoms are comparable to heroin in the metaphor above, that's ridiculous. But we can't ignore the bad aspects of condom use because of one or two good aspects.

An option that has no downside? Abstinence.

Humans with elements of bad are ALWAYS redeemable. Things with elements of bad aren't.

4. The problem of a discordant (one HIV+, one not) couple preparing for marriage is a tough one that I'll have to find an answer to. All I know for sure is that when a couple gets married, they agree to share EVERYTHING - time, family, emotions, and even immune systems. That's not an answer, just a first reaction.

But, according to The Catholic Spirit, the Catholic paper in Minneapolis/St. Paul, “Some bishops and cardinals have argued, for example, that a married couple in which one spouse has AIDS may reasonably be expected to use condoms to prevent transmission of the deadly disease.” There’s definitely merit in that point.

Keep it comin!

Luke J said...

I will most likely be crossing a line here, as I am responding to a comment, and not your post. But I also got "thumbs up" in his post, so I think I'm ok. :) I just want to respond to Ben and what he said about the uneducation of Africans:

"As overly simplistic (and thus inaccurate) as that sounds to educated middle class Americans like you and me, it is exactly what an uneducated person derives from that statement."

I think that, while you are on target with your understanding of the core issues at hand, I think your reasoning is a little off. First, I would like to address the statistics you stated in your next paragraph. While you can use those statistics to make your case that the spread of AIDS is due to lack of education (it is), it would be in error to neglect to mention that poverty and the level of health care in Africa probably carry as much or more consequence in the rise of AIDS than uneducation.

Secondly, you attribute the decline of AIDS in the US to education. This is by far giving us too much credit. While AIDS has been on the decline the past 20 years in the US, other STDs, such as Syphilis and Chlamydia have been on the rise. We certainly cannot attribute this to higher condom usage.

Also, among us educated people in the United States, there is a gross lack of condom use, despite the billions of dollars we put into sex education and distribution of condoms.

So I contend, how can we expect condom education to be the answer to the epidemic in uneducated Africa, when we can't even seem to gain control of it in our own highly sophisticated, wealthy and educated United States?