The Pope get's Lambasted over Condom comment

The Lead has posted the following remarks from BBC News regarding Benedict’s remarks about condom use and the prevention of HIV infection:

One of the world’s most prestigious medical journals, the Lancet, has accused Pope Benedict XVI of distorting science in his remarks on condom use.

It said the Pope’s recent comments that condoms exacerbated the problem of HIV/Aids were wildly inaccurate and could have devastating consequences.

“When any influential person, be it a religious or political figure, makes a false scientific statement that could be devastating to the health of millions of people, they should retract or correct the public record,” it said.

“Anything less from Pope Benedict would be an immense disservice to the public and health advocates, including many thousands of Catholics, who work tirelessly to try and prevent the spread of HIV/Aids worldwide.”

Our correspondent says the article shows how far the Pope’s attempts to justify the Vatican’s position on condoms have misfired.

Having read the Pope’s comments (namely that condom use may not actually decrease the spread of HIV/AIDS, but have the opposite effect) I actually wonder whether he intended to make a scientific statement or a sociological/cultural observation. The intelligibility of the Pope’s comments seems to hinge upon what he is comparing to.  Certainly it is incorrect to say that condom use increases the risk of HIV/AIDs compared to sexual activity without a condom.  However, sexual intercourse with a condom certainly does increase the possibility of infection when compared to total abstinence.  Additionally, it has long been the claim of some who oppose the widespread distribution of contraception that it increases sexual activity generally–including unprotected sex–by lessening the barrier/strictures against it.   I have no evidence that these views are correct, but it does make sense to me that a general allowance for sexual activity brought on by the easy availability of contraception might result in higher levels of unprotected sexual activity as well.  Indeed, I’ve seen anecdotal evidence of that among people that I know.  Regardless, I do wonder if folks are perhaps up in arms over something not at all surprising: the Pope believes the availability of and emphasis on contraception increases the likelihood of sexual activity outside of marriage, which by extension increases the possibility of contracting HIV/AIDS when compared to restricting sexual activity to one partner within marriage. This is not the same thing as saying that the empirical evidence in the first case (comparing the possibility of infection between protected and unprotected sex) is wrong.

I may believe it is absurd for there to be any question about the appropriateness of the use of a condom by a married couple to prevent an HIV positive spouse from infecting their partner, but reason, science and observation all support the notion that abstinence is ultimately the only sure-fire way to prevent the contraction of HIV. The USAID report on HIV in Uganda indicates as much, when it discusses the behavioral changes that have resulted in a decline in HIV there, making it one of Africa’s success stories.  These include a lessening stigma toward those with the disease, delayed sexual debut among youth etc… When it comes to condom use, the report makes an interesting observation:

Condom social marketing has played a key but evidently not the major role: Condom promotion was not an especially dominant element in Uganda’s earlier response to AIDS, certainly compared to several other countries in eastern and southern Africa. In Demographic Health Surveys, ever-use of condoms as reported by women increased from 1 percent in 1989, to 6 percent in 1995 and 16 percent in 2000. Male ever-use of condoms was 16 percent in 1995 and 40 percent in 2000. Nearly all of the decline in HIV incidence (and much of the decline in prevalence) had already occurred by 1995 and, furthermore, modeling suggests that very high levels of consistent condom use would be necessary to achieve significant reductions of prevalence in a generalized-level epidemic. Therefore, it seems unlikely that such levels of condom ever-use in Uganda (let alone consistent use, which was presumably much lower) could have played a major role in HIV reduction at the national level, in the earlier years. However, in more recent years, increased condom use has arguably contributed to the continuing decline in prevalence.

This seems to indicate that condom use can play an important role, but only as part of over all behavioral changes.  People seem to be angry because they believe the Pope’s remarks about condoms will decrease their use, but as I recently read elsewhere: if people aren’t going to listen to the Pope’s teachings about sexual abstinence and marital fidelity, then what makes anyone think his views of condoms will impact the behavior of those same people?  It seems to me that, rather than critisizing a statement that is utterly unsurrprising given the source, those folks who are admirably waging the war against HIV in Africa ought to accept the support of the Roman Catholic and other Churches where they can, and take a lesson from the glimers of hope in Uganda, which seem to have been the result of widespread cooperation between faith communities, the government, and the medical field.

  • Hotspur

    Hmm…going to have to disagree just a little bit on this one.

    I’m a fan of Pope Benedict for my own reasons (German, pretty much picked by a Pole, former head of the Inquisition 😉 with fairly rock-solid conservative leanings…seems to be a good man who cares about humanity and understands his role in helping the last WW2-age generations to heal).

    My only concern is that he may be trying to be too political.

    Outside view looking in (and my view only): Non-Christians pay more attention to Christian philosophy/theology when their ministers stay out of the political sphere. I’m not arguing that ministers, including The Pope, do not have a right to pop off on political matters…they just tend to be listened to more when they “stay on message” about Christian teachings then when they stray off into the political zone.

    I listen to elderly Jews complain sometimes about Pius XII and what he did/did not do before and during the war.

    My view is that he did what he could: If he strongly condemned the Nazi pseudo-science of the time…he would have not been paid attention to since he wasn’t a scientist. If he attempted to rally support from Catholic Germans/Austrians to overthrow Hitler…he, and a majority of Catholic priests and nuns would have been killed (and as a matter of fact there was a plan to do that if he openly called for it…the bad guys were playing for keeps).

    So what did he do? What he could. His job was to make sure that everyone was aware of that WWJD philosophy and hope individuals would make appropriate choices when their time came. He was Ted Williams, not Babe Ruth…consistently batted singles and doubles…not home runs…and consequently didn’t strike out.

    Popes are human…and so is Benedict. He wants to make a difference. It would have been better if he stuck to the message of “sexual relations outside of a commitment is a really bad idea” instead of attacking a form of contraception.

    That makes us heathens step back and think.

  • Adam

    “Additionally, it has long been the claim of some who oppose the widespread distribution of contraception that it increases sexual activity generally–including unprotected sex–by lessening the barrier/strictures against it.”

    This is where I have a problem with the pope and much of the Roman Catholic Church, and frankly most Protestants/Evangelicals in the U.S. When I was an undergraduate (many years ago), we looked at research comparing sexual education programs, specifically looking at comprehensive sex ed (contraception and disease prevention) vs. abstinence-only programs or no programs at all. There was no significant difference in the amount of sexual activity taking place among the different groups, but the groups who were taught the comprehensive programs had significantly lower rates of STDs and pregnancies.

    Now, unless there have been studies refuting these findings in the last decade that I haven’t come across, then this is still the definitive scientific word on the subject. Yet school systems in the state of Tennessee (and many others) are restricted from promoting any form of contraception or disease prevention other than abstinence. I read an article on the Catholic News Service website which quoted the spokesman for a major Catholic organization (I forgot the name) saying that promoting condom use actually increases sexual activity and the spread of STDs. I respect Roman Catholic beliefs on contraception and sexual activity, but using misinformation that is directly contradicted by existing scientific knowledge is unethical.

    Will Pope Benedict’s statement have any effect on condom use? Probably not much. I agree that most who would have sex outside of marriage would ignore the RCC’s teaching on contraception as well. But I’ve known many teen couples who would not be prepared for sexual activity, under the belief that being prepared would make it seem more permissible, but in the moment would give in to temptation. So it is possible.

    My greater concern is what many churches, RCC and otherwise, are doing to prevent comprehensive sex ed in schools. I’ve also heard anecdotal stories (hopefully apocryphal, but I suspect true) of pastors discouraging parents from allowing teenage daughters to be vaccinated against HPV (the main cause of cervical cancer), because it would send the message that engaging in intercourse is permissible. I find that to be outrageous. I hope that the RCC and other groups are not actively trying to prevent condom availability under the same logic.

    Having said all of this, I am intrigued that, as the report suggests, the decline in HIV infection is based on other factors besides condom usage. We could learn much from that.

  • Jody+


    I think I agree to the extent that the Pope would have been better served by doing as you say and emphasizing monogamy and fidelity (which, incidentally, seem to be in line with/on the continuum of the very sort of behavioral changes that have had an impact). However, to be fair, I believe he was asked about condom use and didn’t opine out of the blue. It definitely would have been better if he had given more background as to why he believes condoms make things worse. Simply saying it was so without explanation is what left room for criticism on scientific grounds (as I mentioned before, if one took him to mean that sexual activity with a condom is worse than the same sexual activity without, then of course he was wrong).


    I agree that religious folk could be a little less demanding that public institutions (and therefore everyone who shares them) conform to their sense of values. At the same time, many of the issues that have pitted the Roman Catholic Church against the legal system recently have to do with various charitable institutions the RCC has provided (adoption, hospitals etc…) and the degree to which those institutions, or the personnel within them, can be compelled to comply with societal mores which aren’t shared by the RCC. So, for example, in much of Africa, medical care, like education, has been dominated by the church (various churches, but of course the RCC has been the largest). If, therefore, these RCC institutions aren’t in favor of condoms and believe they worsen the problems, the Pope is to blame for not falling in line and making sure his troops acquiesce to prevailing wisdom. Legally, the US has been forcing Catholic hospitals to provide access to abortion services for years. To me, this is absurd–it is, if nothing else, a societal example of looking a gift horse in the mouth, or a spoiled child dictating the terms by which someone can give them a present (since nothing–save the gospel–compelled the construction of the Catholic health system, which has mostly been privatized by now anyway).

    In a similar way, I wouldn’t discourage parents from having their daughter immunized for HPV, and I certainly have no moral qualms about immunization. I do, however, have problems when I read about a reverse case of values being shoved down a families throat, such as happened with Andrew Jones, who blogs under the name “Tall Skini Kiwi.” Here’s some of his story:

    We are a bit shaken up over the HPV Vaccination, sometimes called the HPV Jab. It supposedly immunises young women against sexually transmitted disease that can lead to genital warts and cervical cancer but is not yet proven. However, for a number of reasons, my wife and I “opted out” by checking the ‘No’ box on the consent form, and our 13 year old daughter also decided NOT to get the jab. We figured with both parents and daughter against the idea, the jabbing would pass us by. But then she went to school and some anonymous doctor jabbed her anyway.

    We have no overt moral or spiritual issue with the immunization itself and, along with the FRC, we don’t believe that the HPV immunisation necessarily leads to promiscuity. We do, however, have a problem with mandatory or coerced vaccination against the will of the child or the parents. But we were told we could “opt out” so we didn’t give it much thought.

    You can read the whole thing here.

    Like I say in my post above–ideology runs in all directions.

  • Adam

    I agree that ideology runs in both directions. However, the difference here is that what happened with Andrew’s daughter is not only immoral, but it is unethical and quite possibly illegal. It is illegal in the U.S., and I would be surprised if it isn’t illegal in the U.K. Vaccination requires consent, just as any other treatment does, unless under emergency circumstances.

    The issue of Catholic hospitals (and other agencies) being compelled to perform procedures or acts that violate their own morality is a thornier issue. In medical treatment, the mechanism for compelling such procedures is the denial of federal funds to facilities that don’t comply. As you’ve said before, if you’re going to take the man’s money, you have to play be the man’s rules.

    But let’s look at that differently. I had a blood transfusion a year ago. What if I was at a hospital run by Jehovah’s witnesses, who then refused to transfuse blood on religious grounds? Granted, I wouldn’t choose to have had open heart surgery at such a facility, but what if my aneurysm had ruptured instead, so I didn’t have a choice of where to seek treatment? Would it be fair for them to impose their own religious beliefs upon me? Save my soul (in their estimation) while losing my life?

    Frankly, I don’t like the government imposing societal mores on private organizations. But sometimes it’s necessary. Desegregation comes to mind. Most cases aren’t nearly as stark in relief as those examples. Pharmacists being compelled to fill birth control or emergency contraceptives is a much trickier issue, as well as Catholic hospitals being compelled to provide or refer to abortion services or adoption agencies being prohibited from discriminating against homosexual couples.

    Still, my frustration lies more with Christians (Catholic and Protestant et cetera) who not only force abstinence-only sex ed on all of us, but who use false information to do it. My issue here is less with the pope, who is certainly free to express his opinion, and more with others who claim that comprehensive sex ed and available contraception increase STDs and pregnancies. There are those who lobby legislatures, who therefore have an obligation to be informed, who claim this. The pope can be forgiven if he is ignorant of the research. Those who are either willfully ignorant or deliberately dishonest, who distort the facts to advance their own agendas, they are the people I take issue with.

    I would love to see all sex limited to loving, monogamous relationships. It would be great if people limited sexual activity to marriage. In such a world condoms would be practically unnecessary. But we don’t live in that world, and we aren’t likely to see it in this life. In the meantime, pretending that “if we don’t talk about it, it will go away,” is not a realistic solution. Unfortunately, in many cases that’s the only option we have.

  • Jody+


    None of the situations I’m aware of where people are asked to violate their consciences include the option to withhold life-saving treatment such as you describe. The Jehovah’s Witness analogy is a little far-fetched since they would stay as far from the medical field as they possibly could… perhaps an Adventist Hospital that refused to serve beef to a person with iron deficiency would be more apropos ;-).

    Instead, in instances such as Connecticut legislation required the states four Catholic hospitals to provide the “plan b” morning after pill to rape victims–I don’t know whether those facilities received public funds or not, but they all had plans in place to refer patients to other local hospitals or pharmacies that could fulfill their requests. Eventually the Bishops softened their stance and said that “to administer the morning after pill without an ovulation test is not an intrinsic evil.” You can’t get a much more emotional issue than rape, as we’ve discussed, but once again, I think it’s presumptuous of the state to require a facilities organized as charitable institutions and supported by people with a particular set of values to do something against their conscience when nothing at all says they must provide any of the services they do. The state may claim that operating a medical facility is a privilege and not a right, but what happens when the private organizations running them decide to close up shop? That is, of course, exactly what happened in the similar instance of Catholic Social services’ adoption program in Massachusetts. How many children and families were harmed because the legislature couldn’t satisfy themselves with the fact that other adoption agencies would place children when same-sex couples, but wanted to impose it upon Catholic charities as well? I may think that continuing their work under those stipulations was the lesser of two evils, but the blame for the fall-out of their closure lies squarely on the shoulders of the legislators and people of Massachusetts for their inability to accept charity as charity, and therefore something that cannot and should not be coerced. The issue is an important one, especially as we look at health care reform. Slate (not exactly the most conservative place on the web) had an interesting article about this issue a while ago:

    Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Chicago warned of “devastating consequences” to the health care system, insisting Obama could force the closure of all Catholic hospitals in the country. That’s a third of all hospitals, providing care in many neighborhoods that are not exactly otherwise overprovided for. It couldn’t happen, could it?

    You wouldn’t think so. Only, I am increasingly convinced that it could. If the Freedom of Choice Act passes Congress, and that’s a big if, Obama has promised to sign it the second it hits his desk. (Here he is at a Planned Parenthood Action Fund event in 2007, vowing, “The first thing I’d do as president is, is sign the Freedom of Choice Act. That’s the first thing I’d do.”) Though it’s often referred to as a mere codification of Roe, FOCA, as currently drafted, actually goes well beyond that: According to the Senate sponsor of the bill, Barbara Boxer, in a statement on her Web site, FOCA would nullify all existing laws and regulations that limit abortion in any way, up to the time of fetal viability. Laws requiring parental notification and informed consent would be tossed out. While there is strenuous debate among legal experts on the matter, many believe the act would invalidate the freedom-of-conscience laws on the books in 46 states. These are the laws that allow Catholic hospitals and health providers that receive public funds through Medicaid and Medicare to opt out of performing abortions. Without public funds, these health centers couldn’t stay open; if forced to do abortions, they would sooner close their doors. Even the prospect of selling the institutions to other providers wouldn’t be an option, the bishops have said, because that would constitute “material cooperation with an intrinsic evil.”

    The bishops are not bluffing when they say they’d turn out the lights rather than comply. Nor is Auxiliary Bishop Robert Hermann of St. Louis exaggerating, I don’t think, in vowing that “any one of us would consider it a privilege to die tomorrow—to die tomorrow—to bring about the end of abortion.”

    Whatever your view on the legality and morality of abortion, there is another important question to be considered here: Could we even begin to reform our already overburdened health care system without these Catholic institutions? I don’t see how.

    {read it all}

    In the end, I think we’re discussing two separate issues, on which we (I think) mostly agree. I’m talking about charity provided to society by religious institutions who want to maintain their beliefs without having society dictate to them, and you’re talking about society as a whole making decisions without having a few religious folk dictate what they can can can’t do (religious folk with a particular point of view, I might add, and not the only point of view of anyone who is religious). In the end, I think we’re both talking about freedom and practicality and where the two agree with or limit each other. As far as health care though, forced compliance that causes the closure (without sell) of 1/3rd of all hospitals in the country is a bit like shooting the goose that laid the golden egg.