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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Pope and stopping HIV

Published: March 20, 2009
Section: Opinions

So St. Patrick never drove the snakes out of Ireland. In fact, there probably never were snakes to begin with. And it is unlikely that he ever used shamrocks to explain the Holy Trinity to the heathens, which is actually quite sad because I have trouble explaining it to myself any other way. But these facts certainly do not lessen the quality of his grand accomplishments, which include serving as a very important first step in making Ireland the only completely Catholic country in Europe for a long while, and basically stomping out the Druids and other fringe Celtic religions that are only seen now at Burning Man. He was also particularly skilled at converting wealthy noble women, and while he fervently writes about refusing gifts from them, he convinced many to found nunneries, which brings to mind the old proverb, “The Irish can sink anything.” Much of his life is unknown, but he has been venerated since the eighth century and is the patron saint of Ireland and of Boston. Many of you probably don’t remember how you spent last Tuesday, but it could be nice to know exactly why you started downing Guinness as soon as your 10:00 a.m. class let out.

All in all, this Patrick was a pretty cool guy who represented the Catholics, and those who dislike snakes, well. Unfortunately, once again the same cannot be said for Pope Benedict, in light of his recent condom-condemning comments on a trip to Africa. It was his first papal visit to Africa and he must have been worried about famine, war, disease and assassination, so maybe nerves caused him to stick his foot in his mouth. Whatever the reason, it is certainly not okay to publically say that HIV/AIDS is “a tragedy…that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which can even increase the problem.” Factually, everyone knows that at least part of this statement is wrong. Any (non-abstinence only) high school health class can tell you that the use of condoms is proven to protect against the transmission of HIV. Obviously, the Catholic Church does not support the sort of sex that would require any type of birth control. Sex between a married man and woman in order to create a baby is the only kind of sex that exists for the Pope, but that is not the case for the rest of the world. Numerous studies have shown that abstinence-based sex education does not lead to lower rates of sex, and definitely not of pregnancy. It is dangerous and irresponsible for the Pope to make statements that encourage a continent facing a tragic epidemic to forgo such a simple form of aid as the condom in favor of a failed method.

Christianity is growing rapidly in Africa, with many more Africans than ever before turning to the Catholic Church for advice on how to live their lives. Yet, as in any other country, religion does not prevent people from engaging in sexual intercourse. It is nice to preach abstinence as a panacea to Africa’s disease problems, but it is foolishly idealistic. It would be fine for the Church to preach their message and then allow the UN and Red Cross to disseminate actual information about human sexuality along with protection, but a line is crossed when the Pope says that such efforts actually serve as a form of vituperation. Unless he is working off of the very silly idea that access to condoms encourages lots of sex, of the unprotected kind as well, there really is no base for such a statement. Everyone understands that condoms cannot overcome the epidemic; they are not a cure. But they are an effective means of containment. It is disturbing to see the Pope follow a longstanding tradition of the Vatican: to ignore blatant scientific evidence in favor of outdated dogma, even while people are suffering.

I am strongly in favor of practicing safe sex on every and any occasion. It is often said that condoms are easier to change than diapers or antiretroviral medications to which a fatal, mutating disease has stopped responding. If the Pope refuses to acknowledge the potential benefits of endorsing condom use under extraordinary circumstances, then he should not issue inaccurate statements to people who will actually listen to him. The Catholic Church has been responsible for a great many deaths over the centuries. They do not need the words of one man making them responsible for millions more.