Pope sticks to the script and flops

March 23, 2009|By SUSAN REIMER

If you are the parent of teenagers, you have to feel for Pope Benedict XVI.

On his trip to Africa last week, he made one of those outrageous statements about sex and birth control that brought down on him the kind of incredulousness and ridicule that only a 16-year-old can inflict on a clueless parent.

The pope said - after landing on a continent that might not only have spawned HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, but is more devastated by it than any other - that the epidemic can't be resolved through the distribution of condoms.

"On the contrary," he said. "It increases the problem."

If you are the parents of teenagers, and you said something like that - to howls of derisive laughter - you'd be backpedaling right now.

You'd be saying that isn't exactly what you meant to say. What you mean to say is this: "Protection isn't the issue here. The issue is that you shouldn't be having sex in the first place."

And you'd be right. Teens, most of whom have their first sexual encounter by the time they are freshmen in high school, aren't ready for the emotional baggage of a sex life. It is simply too much to handle.

Having said that, you, the parent, are responsible for the rest of this conversation: "But if you won't heed my advice and wait until you are older, until you are in a committed relationship, or until you are married, then you must be conscious enough of what you are doing to take the steps to protect yourself against both pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. You must use a condom.

"And make no mistake," you say. "This condom is not permission. It is protection. Protection against the consequences of your bad decision-making."

If you haven't had the rest of this conversation, you are a bad parent.

And if you are the pope, you are a bad pope.

You can make the case that Pope Benedict was simply adhering to the script. The Catholic Church is against birth control, even in marriage. The church believes it is a man-made barrier between God and the miracle of life, and that it is prohibited by Scripture.

And you can make the case that the pope was suggesting that condoms encourage promiscuity and that promiscuity causes AIDS.

But his remarks sounded very much like church comments of a decade ago that HIV was small enough to slip through a condom - comments that undermined the confidence of too many young people in the most reliable, inexpensive and available birth control to which they had access.

But we are not talking about the marriage bed here, and we are not talking about teenagers fooling around in the back seat of a car.

We are talking about a continent that has 67 percent of the world's AIDS cases and has endured 75 percent of the world's AIDS deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

It is a continent in which one of the favored safeguards against HIV infection is forceable sex with young virgins. A continent where rape is a weapon of war. A continent where men infected with the virus infect their wives and their other partners with impunity.

Africa is a continent in which abstinence, fidelity and the use of condoms - or any one of these disciplines - is devoutly to be wished for but almost completely unheard of.

The international response to the pope's statements was barely concealed fury.

"To say that condoms could worsen the problem, presumably by encouraging people to go out and have more sex is empirically wrong," wrote the editors of the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia.

The paper added that preaching abstinence-only in a poor and war-torn continent is "quixotic at best, and downright dangerous at worst."

The pope is right in the same way that parents are right when they tell their children that abstinence is the only way to absolutely prevent pregnancy and disease. But the circumstances in Africa are so compelling as to make such a comparison intolerable, and Pope Benedict's blunt statement of adherence to church dictum has lethal consequences.

More than 28 percent of African children have lost one or both parents to AIDS. And the church still proscribes the use of condoms when one partner in a marriage is infected and the other is not.

I understand that condoms are a symbol of a culture of sexual license and that the only discernible challenge to this culture right now is the stalwartness of Catholic doctrine. But at what point does human life trump religious dogma for this pope and the Catholic Church?

The use of condoms in Africa is no longer about birth control or about placing an artificial barrier between God and the gift of life.

In Africa, condoms are a public health instrument in the fight against death.

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