Did the Pope spread AIDS in Africa?

The evidence is less than compelling.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

What do you know about Pope John Paul II? He was a Catholic. He travelled a lot. He’s now dead. And he apparently did more to spread AIDS around Africa than ‘prostitution and the trucking industry combined’ (1). That last claim has won the status of established fact among critics of the Vatican since the Pope died, tripping off the tongues of various left-leaning commentators and radicals who claim that the Vatican’s condemnation of condom-use in turn condemned many in Africa – where over 100million are Catholic – to long and painful deaths.

The New Statesman made it its cover story this week, with a picture of the Pope cuddling a black child and then the sting in the tale: ‘Blood of innocents on his hands: Pope John Paul II helped keep the continent of Africa disease-ridden….’ (2) It’s on the cover of today’s Guardian, too, with Polly Toynbee describing the Pope as ‘a man whose edict killed millions’ (3). Gay and human rights activist Peter Tatchell, of OutRage!, said, ‘Millions of people in developing countries are orphans, having lost their parents to AIDS because of the Pope’s anti-condom dogma.’ (4) How long before someone accuses the Pope of having committed a crime against humanity?

This idea has been around for some time, and not only in radical quarters. My 15-year-old brother was told the ‘Pope spreads AIDS’ story in a geography lesson at the London Catholic school he attends (the same Catholic school where, when I attended it 15 years ago, there were portraits of the Pope in the hallways and more than a few of my mates had kid brothers called John Paul, named so because they’d been born either in 1978, when Pope John Paul II came to power, or in 1979, when he visited Ireland).

Is it true, then, that ‘tens of thousands of people are slowly dying of AIDS because of the Pope’s lies about condoms’, as one commentator reckons? (5) Even as an ex-Catholic implacably opposed to the Vatican’s utterances on contraception and abortion (and everything else, for that matter), I find it unconvincing. It looks to me more like a conspiracy-theory version of events, a quick and lazy way to have a pop at the Pope and blame a complex social and medical problem on One Evil Man. And it is fuelled by more than a few prejudices of its own about Africans.

The most striking thing about these articles claiming the Vatican makes Africans die from AIDS is the dearth of factual material. Despite getting the cover of the New Statesman, Michela Wrong’s piece elevating the Pope over prostitution in the AIDS-spreading stakes doesn’t even ask, never mind answer, questions you might expect of such a journalistic endeavour. Is the incidence of AIDS higher in Catholic countries in Africa than in non-Catholic countries? Are a majority of AIDS victims in Africa observant Catholics? How are the Pope’s eccentric edicts on condoms relayed on the ground in Africa, and what do Africans think of them?

None of that is interrogated. It is simply asserted that the Pope says something about condoms and – boom! – another few thousand get AIDS. For example, many of these pieces point to the ridiculous statement made by Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, Vatican spokesman on family affairs, who once said that condoms have tiny holes that can ‘leak’ the AIDS virus. Yet Trujillo made that comment at the end of 2003, after the AIDS virus had already gripped parts of Africa, and he was roundly denounced by the World Health Organisation, which issued an international statement saying that, in truth, ‘intact condoms…are essentially impermeable’ (6).

A cursory glance at the incidence of AIDS in various African countries suggests that things are more complex than some of these Vatican-attackers allow. According to the AIDS charity Avert, southern African countries have the highest national adult HIV prevalence rate (7). The two worst-hit countries (not only in Africa, but the world) are Swaziland, where the rate is 38.8 per cent, and Botswana, where it is 37.3 per cent. Yet these countries have low numbers of practising Catholics: in Swaziland, between 10 and 20 per cent of the population is Catholic, while 40 per cent are Zionist (a blend of Christianity and indigenous ancestral worship) and 10 per cent are Muslim; in Botswana fewer than 5 per cent are Catholic, with 85 per cent of the population subscribing to ancient indigenous beliefs.

In South Africa, Avert says the HIV infection rate is around 20 per cent. South Africa is one of Africa’s more secularised nations; around 68 per cent of the population describe themselves as Christian, but only around 7 per cent of the population are Catholic. Do the Pope’s and Cardinal Trujillo’s silly statements on condoms have a hold over countries such as Swaziland, Botswana and South Africa?

One idea that these anti-Pope radicals refuse to entertain is that perhaps some Africans choose not to use condoms. As Avert claims, ‘condoms are not without their drawbacks, especially in the context of a stable partnership where pregnancy is desired’ (7). In underdeveloped countries it is often important to have large families, so that there are more individuals who can work and take care of their parents as they get older and can no longer work. People in these countries may simply desire to have more children, even if that involves the risk of having a child with HIV.

It perhaps isn’t surprising that this possibility is not spoken about, considering that some of those attacking the Vatican’s stance on condoms seem to see the problem in Africa as one of ‘too many people’ and the solution as condoms for all. Michela Wrong attacks the Vatican’s ‘sheer irresponsibility [in] rejecting population control, on a continent stalked by famine and stunted by malnutrition, where each year brings another 10million mouths to feed’ (8). Perhaps the lack of condom-use is not a consequence of Africans being in thrall to Vatican edicts, but because they are equally not in thrall to the population control lobby, those NGOs, charities and commentators who would have us believe that Africa’s problem is primarily one of there being too many black babies around. If it is absurd for the Vatican to depict the condom as evil, it is equally absurd for others to describe it as Africa’s saviour.

No doubt the Catholic Church has a malign influence in some areas, and religion is often more prevalent in poverty-stricken parts. But millions of Catholics around the world ignore Catholic doctrine every day, on contraception, abortion, sex before marriage, sex outside of marriage – and not only in Western Europe and the USA. A recent survey found that 90 per cent of the populations in Mexico and Brazil – two devout Catholic countries – support sex education for children under 14 (much to the fury of the Vatican). Why should Africans be any different?

Apparently, we are told, therein lies the rub – Africans are not as clued up as the rest of us and therefore are more likely to believe the lies that the rest of us can see through. Independent columnist Johann Hari writes of lies about condoms being ‘proclaimed from pulpits in rural African churches where illiterate villagers often had no other source of information’; Michela Wrong says Africans believe what the men in dresses tell them because ‘the continent is still overwhelmingly patriarchal’; Polly Toynbee writes of the ‘helpless third world poor who die for their misplaced faith’ (9).

Whisper it: Africans are gullible, fickle, easily led astray by wicked men and incapable of working out for themselves what a condom does and doesn’t do. Indeed, the only reason you could believe the fantastically simplistic idea that Vatican edict = AIDS in Africa is if you consider Africans to be little more than automatons (or God’s little children) who do as they are told. Yet Africans do many things (such as sleeping with prostitutes, as Michela Wrong salaciously reminds us) that Vatican officials frown upon. It turns out that some of the Vatican’s critics have prejudices as objectionable as those of Vatican cronies.

These hollow attacks on the Pope are merely the flipside of the hollow canonisation of the Pope that is taking place elsewhere. Where the media and political and faith leaders have made the Pope into a symbol of goodness, by avoiding any difficult debate about what he stood for, so the other side has made him into a symbol of evil, without really interrogating the Vatican’s impact in Africa or elsewhere today. Both sides have made the Pope into something he was not, in order to peddle their own ideas and prejudices.

Read on:

After John Paul II, by Michael Fitzpatrick

Pope John Paul II: fast-tracked to celebrity sainthood?, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) ‘He did more to spread AIDS in Africa than prostitution and the trucking industry combined’, Michela Wrong, New Statesman, 11 April 2005

(2) ‘He did more to spread AIDS in Africa than prostitution and the trucking industry combined’, Michela Wrong, New Statesman, 11 April 2005

(3) Not in my name, Polly Toynbee, Guardian, 8 April 2005

(4) Criticisms of out-of-date Pope, Scotland on Sunday, 3 April 2005

(5) History will judge the Pope far more harshly than the adoring crowds in Rome, Johann Hari, The Independent, 8 April 2005

(6) Vatican: condoms don’t stop Aids, Guardian, 9 October 2003

(7) HIV and AIDS in Africa, Avert, 30 March 2005

(8) ‘He did more to spread AIDS in Africa than prostitution and the trucking industry combined’, Michela Wrong, New Statesman, 11 April 2005

(9) Not in my name, Polly Toynbee, Guardian, 8 April 2005

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Topics Politics


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