- The Pope on condoms: Neither right nor wrong
By Faraz Shauketaly
A statement from the spiritual head of one billion people that signalled an end to a hard-line stance adopted from time immemorial, was hardly likely to go unnoticed. That is exactly what happened when Pope Benedict XVI – the Head of the Catholic Church – commented on the use of condoms in his latest book, Light Of The World.
Pope Benedict XVI, speaking to the German journalist Peter Seewald, who has twice before written books on plain Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict XVI — appears to have signalled a softening of the previous hard-line stance adopted by the Catholic Church. Liberal Catholics and those working towards fighting the spread of AIDS, especially on the African continent, welcomed the apparent shift even if that shift was tenuous at best.
Pope Benedict’s remark could not have been innocuous and it stopped short of a straight “yes we approve condoms” statement but considering that contraception is completely against the Catholic belief, the statement was interpreted by most as a start – certainly a step in the right direction, seemingly making the Catholic Church more pragmatic in trying to combat the growing menace of AIDS.
A storm was certainly brewing and a clarification was issued by the Vatican Press Office. It pointed out that Pope Benedict had stated that condoms alone were not the answer to the spread of AIDS. In the book, the Holy Father also said that the fact that condoms are available now and yet the spread of AIDS is present itself showcases that the distribution of condoms alone was not sufficient. He added that to concentrate on condoms alone is to trivialise sexuality, in turn losing its meaning as an expression of love and becomes like a drug. Last Wednesday however, His Holiness received Peter Seewald at the Vatican and was presented with the book’s first copy.
The author himself claimed that the Pope’s answers have been sensationalised by the world’s press and that undue prominence was being placed on the ‘condom’ issue. At 83 and having “placed himself in the hands of God” it is unlikely that His Holiness would have under-estimated the reverberations his answers would bring on its release. The book is likely to become a best seller.
The Pope of course made it very clear that in very specific instances – when it came to saving a life and to minimise the risk of spreading the disease – condom use would be the more humane route and cited the use of a condom by a male prostitute to stop the risk.
His Holiness was certainly all for the “final victory” that of making humanity more responsible and that sexuality was an expression of love and responsibility. The more liberal Catholics interpreted the Pope’s example of a male prostitute’s use of condoms as a sign that, however narrow the thought process was, His Holiness had at least now, acknowledged that there was a place for the use of condoms – even if that was not the real answer but a beginning of the understanding that to indulge in forbidden acts was to increase the risk of life.
If his statement on the use of condoms in specific cases was a “quick win”, the real answer, as the Pope would have us all have faith in, was in the bigger victory – in having his flock believe that in the long term, humanity should become more responsible and acknowledge that one simply cannot do exactly what one wants without regard for the consequences of one’s actions. Especially when one is risking not only one’s own life, but lives of fellow world citizens, whilst trivialising sexuality to almost like a self administered drug.
Pope Benedict has come almost full circle if not a U-turn: way back in 2009, on his visit to Africa – where the Catholic Church has the largest collection of its one billion plus flock – His Holiness was simply direct, saying AIDS was “a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which can even increase the problem”. The Pope must have known that he was speaking in a continent where 17% of the population are followers of his Church and react to the words of His Holiness with a fervour that is not prevalent in the West; the West long having taken papal pronouncements with a pinch of salt. The Pope has been scathing in his remarks of the West too: speaking out on another issue which has caused the Church much consternation, sex tourism, “The destructive processes of sex tourism… is extraordinary and are born from the arrogance and the boredom and the false freedom of the Western world.”
Many in Africa lament that the problem of HIV and AIDS has been presented as rather trivial or simplistic: in that either the Catholic Church can make it stay or make it go away; almost as though that if the Pope accepts the use of contraception, that in itself would be sufficient to resolve the problem of AIDS. Rather, education, knowledge, poverty and consequently the financial packages the Church brings with it, alongside the spirituality, are key ingredients in the implements needed to combat the disease – hand in hand with experts on the ground who understand the magnitude of the problem.
The scale of the problem may be best understood with the numbers: more than 65% of the world’s AIDS sufferers live in Africa – some 22 million souls. The Catholic Church’s strongest growing base is the parish of Africa with approximately 17% of the African population.
The ever so slight shift in stance from the Catholic Church certainly gives the world of AIDS and HIV workers, activists and indeed those that suffer from a singularly evil disease and the children with AIDS, a glimmer of hope. For much of his life, Pope Benedict XVI has courted controversy more by external acts rather than pro active action; Joseph Aloysius Ratzinger, the 265th Pope, will go down in history as the Pope who first accepted condoms. For all his previous pronouncements, whilst he has steadfastly sought to keep within the confines of the faith for which he has given his entire life to uphold, Pope Benedict XVI must be given the recognition he so deserves – for being unafraid to acknowledge the realities of the modern age whilst not taking a major deviation from Catholicism.