Thursday, March 19, 2009

Why the Pope is Right—and Wrong

Pope Benedict XVI, while flying to Africa earlier this week, criticized the distribution of condoms as a way of combating the spread of HIV/AIDS.

According to, the Pope said that AIDS "is a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems" and that the answer to the AIDS epidemic is to be found in a "spiritual and human awakening" and "friendship for those who suffer."

While a serious matter the world over, AIDS is an especially pertinent issue in Africa. The International AIDS charity Avert estimates that of the 33 million people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide, 22 million of them live in sub-Saharan Africa; they further estimate that 5% of adults age 15-49 in sub-Saharan Africa have HIV/AIDS.

Pope Benedict is correct in his assertion that the best solution to the AIDS epidemic is sexual abstinence before marriage and fidelity in marriage. It’s a no-brainer, really: if everybody would remain celibate before they marry and if everyone would have sex with no one but their marital partner after marriage and if everyone who never marries would never have sexual relations, then the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS or any other sexually transmitted disease would be greatly reduced (you still can’t say that the risk would be eliminated because for a few generations we would have to be concerned about those young people who have HIV/AIDS because it was passed to them by their mother and the possibility that they would pass it to a spouse, even if neither they nor the spouse had ever had sex before marriage.)

The Pontiff is also absolutely right to maintain that at the heart of the AIDS crisis is a spiritual crisis, just as he would be absolutely right if he said that a spiritual crisis lay at the heart of so many moral crises or health crises—alcohol and drug abuse or obesity or our current economic turmoil, for example, at the heart of which are such spiritual problems as emptiness, meaninglessness, anxiety, fear, pride, and greed.

So Pope Benedict is correct to say that the AIDS crisis “cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms” and that the best solution would be a spiritual and moral revival that would cause people to live lives of devotion and fidelity to God and to one another so that they would abstain from pre-marital and extra-marital sex. I believe that such living, when motivated by love, grace, and compassion is the healthiest and happiest way to live.

But Pope Benedict is also wrong. He is wrong to oppose the use of condoms to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and he is wrong to assert that the promotion of condom use is not a necessary part of the solution in waging the war against HIV/AIDS and other STDs. He is wrong because he is not taking reality into account and, so far as I am concerned, taking reality into account is key to dealing with large-scale moral and spiritual issues.

And the reality is that people are going to have sex and the further reality is that some people are going to have sex before marriage and outside of marriage. Now, hear me clearly: it is wrong and they should not. My point is just that such behavior goes back at least to the book of Genesis and it’s just not going to go away.

I do and will preach from my pulpit that God’s way for us is that we wait for marriage to have sex and that is God’s way for us that we be faithful to our marital partner. I do and will preach that sex is meant to be more than sex; it is meant to be making love and making love, which involves the union of body, spirit, mind—indeed, the union of life—is best experienced by a man and woman who are totally committed to each other for life and whose mutual commitment is based in self-giving, sacrificial love.

But there is sin. There are people. This ain’t Mayberry. We believe and live and preach the ideal but we accept and work within the reality.

I’ll never forget the lovely afternoon when, sitting under a tree in our front yard in Nashville, Tennessee, I had “the talk” with our son. I halfway expected us to act out the old joke—Father: “Son, I need to talk with you about sex”; Son: “OK, Dad, what do you want to know?”—but we didn’t. We had a good conversation and I advised him according to best wisdom that I could muster. “Son,” I said, “The best way to live is to wait until you get married to have sex; that’s the best way to live spiritually, emotionally, and physically. It is God’s way and it really is the best way.” Then I drew a very deep breath and I said, “But Son, you may not do that. And if you don’t, I want you to protect yourself and the other person. I want you to do what’s best but if you choose not to do so, I don’t want you fathering a child or contracting a disease.” And I went on to tell him what I thought I needed to tell him.

I think that Pope Benedict’s position is a necessary one for him to take because the acceptance of condom use as a disease preventative would imply the acceptance of condom use, period, and of course another purpose of condoms is to prevent pregnancy. As is well known, the official position of the Roman Catholic Church, as stated in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (1968) is,”Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.” So no artificial birth control is sanctioned by the Catholic Church, although it has been reported that the vast majority of American Catholics support a change in that policy.

Still, it seems to me that the Pope’s “pro-life” position may in fact be an “anti-life” position. Is it really more important not to interfere artificially with conception than it is to protect lives that already exist?

So Pope Benedict is right to take the high spiritual and moral ground.

But he is wrong not to see that the use of condoms to inhibit the spread of disease may also be a sound moral position to take.


Bobby Mac said...

Here are the words of someone who has much more expertise than you:

"The pope is correct, or put it a better way, the best evidence we have supports the pope’s comments….[C]ondoms have been proven to not be effective at the 'level of population.'"

"There is a consistent association shown by our best studies, including the U.S.-funded 'Demographic Health Surveys,' between greater availability and use of condoms and higher (not lower) HIV-infection rates. This may be due in part to a phenomenon known as risk compensation, meaning that when one uses a risk-reduction 'technology' such as condoms, one often loses the benefit (reduction in risk) by 'compensating' or taking greater chances than one would take without the risk-reduction technology."

This is from Edward C. Green, director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. Hat tip to the Reformed Pastor.

It is born out in the experience of Uganda where the HIV rate was brought down from 30% in 1989 to 6% in the late 90's. This gained the world's attention. One can look at condom distribution in raw numbers and see that condoms took a huge increase in the late 90's (only after the significant declines in HIV) and what happened? The HIV rate turned back upwards.

Of course, on an individual case, should you wear a condom if you are going to engage in unsafe sex and you want to decrease the HIV transmission rate. But if you are a national leader, do you want to have condoms imported into your nation by the boatload? No. The Pope is correct.

Michael Ruffin said...
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