When theology leads to tragedy
In an interview with journalist Peter Seewald, Pope Benedict XVI said that condom use may be acceptable under "exceptional circumstances" such as use by a male prostitute in order to prevent the spread of HIV/ AIDS.
Interpretation of the pope's pronouncement has varied. Many insist that the church's teaching, which bans birth control, has not changed, but others see the pope's statement as opening the door to a broader conversation about human sexuality in the modern world.
What are the implications of Pope Benedict's statement on condoms in terms of AIDS policy, the church's teaching on sex and its view of women?
"When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist." - Archbishop Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara
I was thinking about that famous quote from the 'Bishop of Corum' when pondering this week's question. It reveals a central tension within Christian charity, between treating the symptoms of a problem, feeding the poor, or attempting to treat the source of a problem, asking why the poor have no food. It can easily be applied to the Catholic Church's current stance towards condoms and the global HIV/AIDS crisis. On one hand, the Church, here in the United States and across the world, has engaged in easing the suffering of individuals with HIV through Catholic-run clinics and charities, but they have also refused to participate in safe sex education, going so far in some cases as to spread misinformation about condoms. A famous flashpoint of this conflict between caring for HIV+ individuals and doing something to stem the tide of HIV transmission was the infamous 1989 "Stop the Church" demonstration in New York. Activists from ACT UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) and WHAM (Women's Health Action and Mobilization) along with nearly 5000 protesters, surrounded St. Patrick's Cathedral, with some interrupting the morning Mass, their anger largely focused on Cardinal John Joseph O'Connor. O'Connor was a living embodiment of the Catholic Church's position on HIV and AIDS. He personally cared for those dying of AIDS, but refused to endorse safe sex to stem transmission, claiming that "condom failure [was] as high as 50 percent."
The Catholic church's failure to endorse condom use and safe sex practices was widely seen by activists as prolonging an epidemic, indirectly killing thousands, perhaps millions, because of theology. The Church's billion-plus followers were told that condom use under any circumstance was a sin, and that abstinence was the only sure way to avoid transmission of HIV. It is within this context that we should see the immense flood of coverage, and subsequent Vatican walk-back/clarification, of Pope Benedict XVI's comments regarding the "exceptional circumstances" of an HIV+ prostitute. It opens the door, just a crack, to the notion that safe sex, specifically condom use, could be a more moral choice than not using a condom at all. It recognizes that the chasm between treating symptoms and sources isn't as vast when taken to a human level. Sadly, I don't think this moment of pragmatic empathy will ripple out and change the Catholic Church's stance on condom use.
The vast tragedy is the blind insistence that simply encouraging abstinence would somehow work. According to UNAIDS, there are more than 7000 new HIV infections each day. Many of those infected could have been reached by the Catholic Church, and by other Christian organizations that do outreach to people with HIV or AIDS, but who won't encourage basic sexual responsibility. It's this denial of Eros outside of rigidly defined roles, this romanticized struggle against the physical passions, that continues to be a massive failing of many strains of the dominant monotheisms. Our modern world is still so afraid of our sexual selves, still so wrapped in taboos and superstitions, that it is willing to turn this ongoing tragedy into a statistic, a talking point, a moral lesson, instead of seeing the industry of ignorance, suffering, and death in which it is engaged. We keep feeding the poor, but won't ask why they are hungry.
The situation we find our selves in is beyond tragic. I would normally try to point out how a Pagan perspective would improve things, but I won't cheapen this situation by engaging in some trivial point-scoring against the lumbering Catholic Church and its Pope. Instead of talking about the openness and rationality of Pagan conceptions of sexuality, let me instead end with a plea to all people of conscience. If we put aside the culture wars, we could end this disease in a generation. We could make HIV and AIDS as rare as polio. We could even find a cure. But to do this, we have to commit resources to it, and move toward a pragmatic admission that abstinence isn't enough. We need safe sex. We need condoms. We need comprehensive education, and we need Catholicism to stop obstructing the eradication of this misery and death. If we can accomplish this, then the Christian churches can go right back to preaching abstinence - once we have a cure, or at least have stopped the spread, of HIV.
November 22, 2010; 10:35 PM ET
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Posted by: Sajanas | November 23, 2010 1:20 PM
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