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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Pope’s statement reveals church’s long road to relevance

    I’m what some people call a “”fallen Catholic.”” I was raised and baptized in the religion, but I haven’t been to Mass in at least a year and differ with the church on enough fundamental issues that I’d be hard-pressed to call myself Catholic today. But even as I have drifted away from the church, I have always respected its mission throughout the world, especially in terms of social justice.

    However, recent comments by Pope Benedict XVI have set off an international uproar that has challenged the church’s historical image as an institution wholly committed to the poor, afflicted and oppressed worldwide.

    On March 17, en route to Africa, the Pope stated, “”the scourge (of AIDS) cannot be resolved by distributing condoms; quite the contrary, we risk worsening the problem.””

    Of course, the Western media jumped down the Pope’s throat at his anti-condom pronouncement. One London newspaper printed a cartoon of the Pope with a large condom on his head. Instead of examining the content and context of the Pope’s statement, the media engaged in one of its favorite hobbies: mindless Pope-bashing.

    Of course, the Pope was in many ways dead wrong. The UN and myriad other organizations have cited condom use as one of the most effective weapons against the spread of AIDS. But the media’s reaction doesn’t get at the heart of the issue.

    The Catholic Church’s stance on birth control, including condoms, has always been the same: across-the-board opposition. The Pope’s statements revealed nothing new about that position; in fact, they may have been more forward-thinking than we understand. Some experts, including director of Harvard University’s AIDS Prevention Research Project, Edward Green, agree with the Pope. Green believes that condom distribution could be worsening the AIDS epidemic in Africa by promoting what he calls “”risk compensation”” – that is, encouraging people to engage in more risky behavior by giving them what they might perceive as fool-proof protection.

    Whether or not the Pope was correct in his statement is not the real issue here. Instead, we’re confronted with the relevance of the papacy and the church in the developing world.

    AIDS is a bona fide epidemic in Africa, especially the sub-Saharan region. Overall, 5 percent of adults between the ages of 15 and 49 are HIV-positive; in some countries, like Swaziland, Botswana and Lesotho, that number is over 20 percent, according to AVERT, an international AIDS charity.

    Perhaps the only thing growing as quickly in Africa as the AIDS epidemic is Catholicism. According to the annual “”Annuario Pontificio,”” or Vatican yearbook, Catholicism is spreading faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world, growing 3.1 percent in 2005.

    Here, the church has the opportunity to assert its influence in the way that has made it a major force for positive change in the past. Just as Catholic priests fought bloody dictatorships in Latin America in the second half of the twentieth century, and just as Pope John Paul II had a role in spreading freedom through eastern Europe, the current Pope is poised to educate the Catholic faithful of Africa in AIDS awareness and prevention.

    George Wirnkar, of Human Life International, a worldwide pro-life organization, witnessed part of the Pope’s most recent trip to Africa. He observed, “”over 2,000 people … stayed in heavy rain singing and praying … this is not a sign of dismay or disillusionment with the church, but of devotion and joy.”” Africans are turning to the church when their own and other world governments are failing them, as a symbol of hope in the face of epic despair. The church has an audience the UN can only dream of.

    It is this fact, not his statement on condom use, which reveals how far Pope Benedict still has to come. He may not be entirely wrong about condoms as the preferred anti-AIDS method in Africa because, clearly, condom distribution alone is not working.

    But the church’s weak abstinence-only sex education in the face of such an epidemic is like combating the recent drug violence in Mexico with D.A.R.E. programs: It’s not anywhere close to enough to cope with the massive death and destruction AIDS is wreaking on Africa. If the Pope is to make such startling and controversial statements, he and the church had better be ready to offer real leadership for their faithful.

    The papal visit to Africa revealed that the faithful are there, and have turned to the church for guidance. Pope Benedict cannot continue to hide behind dogma, watching the epidemic claim millions of lives when his voice could be such a powerful tool. The church has seen amazing change happen by its hand before. The AIDS epidemic in Africa is an opportunity for the church to prove that it is still relevant, still a major voice for human life and dignity.

    Heather Price-Wright is a creative writing and Latin American studies sophomore. She can be reached at

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