Misrepresenting Benedict’s Bravery

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.

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.

Benedict XVI in Africa: courageously proclaiming an unpopular moral message

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’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.