Written by Sherry
Tuesday, 31 March 2009 10:04
This is interesting and definitely not something that most Catholic bloggers would expect.
The Director of the African Jesuit AIDS Network, Michael Czerny, SJ, has written an essay on Pope Benedict's comments about condoms made while on his way to Africa. It is long but worth reading in its entirety. Here are some highlights.
Vatican officials estimate that around the world the Catholic Church now provides more than 25 percent of all care administered to those with HIV/AIDS. The proportion is naturally higher in Africa, nearly 100% in the remotest areas. Let an HIV-positive Burundian on antiretroviral drugs explain the service:
When we go to other places, they only see numbers in us. We become hospital cases to be dealt with. We are problems. We lose our sense of dignity and worth. Yet we never feel that when we come to our Church programme. This is because we get a complete approach to our problems, whether spiritual, medical, mental, social or economic. (Personal testimony)
Not to undervalue this contribution, let us recognise that public policy and programming function as a lowest common denominator, a minimum which every citizen has a right to. Public health policy deals with figures and trends – not with human faces and persons.
The Christian vision includes all that, but goes broader and deeper than policy. With a holistic vision, the Church sees each person as a child of God, as brother or sister, each one capable of both sin and holiness. Now, such unique, whole and holy persons are not readily detectable in tables of averages. But they are the real people of real life. As believers, they are the pillars of communities, the silent agents of deep transformation. So the Church’s work of addressing, forming, guiding and challenging persons is more ambitious than public health, deeply different in quality and spirit.
Facing not only AIDS but multiple crises in most corners of the continent, Africans have good reason, based on experience, to believe in the Church’s bold vision for them.
On the second issue of a strategy for whole populations, there is widespread belief that condom-use programmes are effective in reducing HIV infection rates. However, this proves true only outside Africa and amongst identifiable sub-groups (e.g. prostitutes, gay men), not in a general population. There is no evidence that condoms as a public health strategy have reduced HIV levels at the level of the whole population. Indeed, greater availability and use of condoms is consistently associated with higher (not lower) HIV infection rates, perhaps because when one uses a risk reduction ‘technology’ such as condoms, one often loses the benefit (reduction in risk) because people take greater chances than they would without the technology.
Therefore at the public level, an aggressive condoms policy ‘increases the problem’ as it deflects attention, credibility and resources from more effective strategies like abstinence and fidelity – or in secular language, the postponement of sexual debut and a reduction in the proportion of men and women reporting multiple sexual partners. Abstinence and fidelity win little public support in dominant Western discourse, but they are vindicated by solid scientific research and are increasingly included, even favoured, in national AIDS strategies in Africa.
The promotion of condoms as the strategy for reducing HIV infection in a general population is based on statistical probability and intuitive plausibility. It enjoys considerable credibility in the Western media and among Western opinion makers. What it lacks is scientific support.
Springing up out of Catholic faith and tradition, the Pope’s whole and indeed holistic message is for the people he is visiting. It connects thoroughly with the human reality on the ground. A Congolese Jesuit wrote to me, ‘Over here we are following the visit of the Pope with great interest, as well as the speculation in the press about the question of condoms arising from the Holy Father’s wise statement before touching down in Africa. What a shame that so far people don’t realise that the solution to AIDS won’t come with distribution of these things, but by handling the whole question as a whole.’
4. The Holy Father concludes by answering again the journalist’s allegation of ‘unrealistic and ineffective?’: ‘It seems to me that this is the proper response, and the Church does this, thereby offering an enormous and important contribution. We thank all who do so.’
According to my experience, most Africans, Catholic or not, agree. To them, what the Holy Father said is profound and true. He is reiterating what they have been experiencing for years and what they continue to expect. They too thank those who implement the Church’s strategy.