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Misrepresenting Benedict’s Bravery Print E-mail
By Matthew Hanley   
Thursday, 02 December 2010

Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks about condoms and AIDS – or rather confusing manipulations of those remarks – are reverberating around the world.  But they do not represent the change in his thought or Catholic teaching that the media have vigorously claimed, however much progressive or dissenting theologians, and perhaps even some papal aides, wish otherwise. And they are not a vindication of public health authorities who have, for decades, unsuccessfully advocated technical means of battling sexually transmitted epidemics, while refusing to emphasize the kinds of behaviors that would avoid infection altogether.

The New York Times tells us the pope’s words, in the newly published book Light of the World, were received with “glee from clerics and health workers in Africa, where the AIDS problem is worst.” The pope as anachronistic obstacle to global health has long been a fashionable narrative. But consider: decades of robust condom promotion (and other technical interventions) utterly failed to curb Africa’s AIDS epidemics, and common-sense changes in sexual behavior accounted for Africa’s handful of AIDS declines.  Is one misrepresented remark from the pontiff now to do what lavish and sophisticated condom campaigns couldn’t?  Public health leaders should be carefully scrutinized. They, not the pope, are explicitly charged with containing epidemics.   

In the late 1980s, Benedict stated the case quite clearly: “To seek a solution to the problem of infection by promoting the use of prophylactics would be to embark on a way not only insufficiently reliable from the technical point of view, but also and above all, unacceptable from the moral aspect.”  Doing so facilitates evil rather than tolerating it. Catholic institutions, he said, should avoid “engaging in compromises which may even give the impression of trying to condone practices which are immoral, for example, technical instructions in the use of prophylactic devices.”

In the new book, he repeats what he said last year on the way to Africa:  condoms are not “a real or moral solution” to the AIDS crisis. As Dr. Janet Smith helpfully notes, “The Church has no formal teaching about how to reduce the evil of intrinsically immoral action…the homosexual act itself.”   

Benedict was driving, rather, at the possibility of interior awakening and transformation. Those who use condoms while engaging in homosexual activity may recognize the moral imperative not intentionally to inflict harm upon oneself or another. They might then ask whether taking such calculated risks of doing so is acceptable. (The fact that new HIV infections in the United States are rising today only among men who have sex with men suggests persistent risk-taking). Such persons might even radically reconsider the purpose and proper context for sexual expression. Benedict’s remarks, it seems, express a profound sense of hope that even the most dissolute person may perceive deep moral imperatives and forsake unhealthy lifestyles altogether.


          Benedict XVI in Africa: courageously proclaiming an unpopular moral message 
 

Public health leaders studiously avoid encouraging that possibility.  Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Health wrote in the pages of the Washington Post last year that “the annual number of new HIV infections in the United States – about 56,000 – has remained fairly constant for more than a decade. That’s right, 56,000 people are infected in this country every year. Clearly, our efforts at HIV prevention have been insufficient.”  

This failure has occurred even though high-risk populations (such as those Benedict mentioned) are knowledgeable about condoms and motivated to use them. Dr. Fauci called for “drastic action and new approaches,” by which he meant more technical risk-reduction measures – new drugs and more voluntary counseling and testing. He didn’t mention behavior change.

He doesn’t dare. As Benedict put it in a 1988 Cambridge lecture: "whoever dares to say that mankind ought to refrain from that inordinate sexual license which gives AIDS its effective power is put on the sidelines as a hopeless obscurantist because of his public attitude. Such an idea can only be deplored and passed over in silence by the enlightened of today."

        The silence of our enlightened medical and public health authorities has clearly not served us well.  Rates of other STDs are unabated or even rising; one in four teenage girls has an STD, according to the Center for Disease Control. Several western countries have seen some STD rates double or triple over the past two decades despite pervasive condom messaging. 

San Francisco has essentially banned McDonald’s Happy Meals, thereby forcing people to abstain from certain foods.  Yet it cannot recommend abstinence from much more dangerous sexual behavior.  That would be truly intolerable in our present cultural climate. Benedict XVI had precisely that in mind when he deplored the “dictatorship of relativism,” which now has many loyal subjects.

Those who now portray the pope’s words as a theological and philosophical revolution do so not because they think it will improve public health, but because they imagine it will increase the likelihood that the Church will ultimately approve of homosexual acts and contraception. 

Benedict maintains that “not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.” Dr. Fauci and the Public Health Establishment dare not say, even for health reasons, that some behaviors should be avoided entirely. For all practical purposes, theirs is a variation of Ivan Karamazov’s famous formulation: without God – and with faith in the strictly technical fix – all things are permitted.

The claim that some forms of sexual activity are wrong is seen today as a limitation on individual freedom. But Benedict is teaching us that “morality is not man’s prison; it is rather the divine in him.”  He courageously proclaims an unpopular moral message because he hopes that all people – even that male prostitute – will recognize and respond to the divine spark within. 

He has been far, far braver than leading public health figures.  And his message is far more hopeful, healthier, and conducive to the common good. In a sane world, media attention would be trained not on Benedict but upon our public health authorities, who wave the white flag of surrender when it comes to unhealthy behavior.

Matthew Hanley is, with Jokin D. Irala, M.D., the author of Affirming Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach the West, available now from the National Catholic Bioethics Center.
 

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Comments (6)Add Comment
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written by Bangwell Putt, December 02, 2010
It is imperative that Pope Benedict, Matthew Hanley, all those who struggle for that which is divine in human beings, be supported by fervent prayers and fasting of all people of good will. We have at times been asked to pray for "capital campaigns" after Masses but not, to my knowledge, for the light of the Holy Spirit to correct those who are engaged in the present campaign for sexual license, even meaninglessness.
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written by Bill, December 02, 2010
I have heard Dr. Fauci interviewed and he did express that in one-on-one interviews with homosexuals, they encourage them to: 1. reduce the number of partners,2. use protection. They do neither which is why his offices have been pushing for this new pill to reduce HIV/AIDS infection.
The pill must be taken everyday, but homosexual men choose not to take them each day. Think of the former Governor of New Jersey (I am a gay American)ducking his State Police bodyguards in order to troll rest areas on the N.J. Turnpike for male sex. This is why the Church insists these men have "disordered personalities".
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written by Magister Christianus, December 02, 2010
You write, "Benedict was driving, rather, at the possibility of interior awakening and transformation. Those who use condoms while engaging in homosexual activity may recognize the moral imperative not intentionally to inflict harm upon oneself or another. Benedict’s remarks, it seems, express a profound sense of hope that even the most dissolute person may perceive deep moral imperatives and forsake unhealthy lifestyles altogether."
This is exactly right. You have hit the nail on the head, although I do not see how else his statements could reasonably interpreted.
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written by Grump, December 02, 2010
Perhaps this is a poor analogy, but suggesting condom use in commission of sin is sort of like saying it's better to commit a robbery with an unloaded gun than a loaded gun. Crime is crime. The weapon just adds an enhancer to the penalty. What am I missing?
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written by The Moz, December 02, 2010
Wonderful! This is exactly what I've been trying to impart to my friends for over a year now. You've summed up the truth very nicely but boy is it every unpopular and sometimes it is even labelled hate speech.
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written by Marcus, December 06, 2010
Grump,
Pope Benedict was not saying that it is less of a crime, rather it may indicate (and I believe I'm plagiarizing this next phrase) a flicker of conscience within the individual. Fr. Fessio has compared it to a group of muggers who use metal pipes to beat up their victims. One day, one of the muggers realizes that if they put padding on the pipes, though they are still robbing, they are not doing as much damage to the victims. I hope that has helped. God bless!

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