On Tuesday, March 17, Pope Benedict XVI kicked off his first trip to Africa with a stop in Yaounde, Cameroon. The proclamation he made there has already become a worldwide talking point and a source of major contention – that proclamation, of course, was the one in which he contended that “you can’t resolve [the AIDS epidemic] with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem.”
Well, except that condoms don’t increase the problem. Rather, they are potentially life-saving devices, and a crucial part of the war against AIDS. According to the Washington Post, 22% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is infected with HIV/AIDS. That’s a very worrisome statistic; condoms have the power to reduce it over time. Condom usage can be – and, in many cases, has been – the single thing that prevents the transmission of AIDS between partners. Yes, condoms can break, or be worn incorrectly. But condoms are critically effective much more often – and certainly, in any case, safer than unprotected sex with an infected partner.
The Pope advocated, instead, abstinence only. Abstinence is obviously the most effective way to prevent the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, but it simply is not always feasible or realistic. Condoms save lives, and this vital fact cannot be superseded by ideology.
Ultimately, the Pope fails to acknowledge cultural realities that affect the ability to have safe sex. Numerous civil wars and conflicts, political corruption, persistent racism, and gender inequality are just a few factors that contribute to the impracticality of the Pope’s mandate. Denying life-saving information is not moral. The moral thing to do would be to save one partner from ignominy and the other from infection by doing as health workers, even staunchly Catholic ones, have done: dispensing condoms widely and often.
It’s not “pro-life” to warn people away from condoms – rather, it’s a foolish, dogmatic move with the power to prevent the saving of lives. Perhaps it’s time for Pope Benedict to listen to the wisdom of his flock, nearly all of whom advocate condom use. That, not the blind rigidity of the pope’s comments, is pragmatic, applicable morality.