Praising the pope, patronising Africans

It is crazy to believe that Benedict XVI can decide the fate of millions of Africans with one comment about condoms.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics World


This week some of the Catholic Church’s biggest critics have at last found cause to sing the pope’s praises. And it’s all because Benedict XVI has finally said that it may not be completely sinful to use a condom. This, his increasingly vociferous critics argue, is splendid news for Africa. Apparently it means goodbye HIV/AIDS-creating dogma, hello conventional liberal wisdom.

The occasion for this rare bout of papal praise is the publication of the book-length interview, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times, in which Benedict XVI gives his thoughts on everything from climate change to abortion. And it was here, amidst the orthodoxy, that he said something hitherto unvoiced by him or his predecessors. Using a condom, he said, to reduce the risk of HIV infection, ‘can be a first step in the direction of moralisation, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants’. So while the condom may not be right, it’s not wrong either.

Admittedly, the Catholic Church’s position is still a little bit unclear. For instance, Vatican spokesman Reverend Federico Lombardi called Benedict’s remarks unprecedented, but added that they were ‘not a revolutionary turn’. Benedict’s words had simply been offered ‘colloquially’, not as part of official church teaching. Still, most were in little doubt that something had changed. In the words of UK-based Catholic journalist Cristina Odone, the pope’s statement ‘allows Catholics, when we defend our church, to be able to say that this is a not a church that condemns people to AIDS and that this is not a church that wilfully ignores the consequences of having unprotected sex’.

But the relief of those with rosary beads to stroke was as nothing compared to the excitement of those with an axe to grind. ‘Pope Benedict’s XVI’s change of heart on condoms marks a significant break with the damage done by one of his predecessors’ most romantic, wicked and wrong-headed policies’, enthused Andrew Brown in the Guardian. Over at the Telegraph, another commentator saw it as an undoubted positive move: ‘Yes, we secular liberals can hope that this is the start of a greater change, and we can regret the lives lost while we waited for it. But we should also recognise that it is a great change already, and that it will start to save lives now. And, however much some people will struggle to praise the pope, we should swallow our pride, and give credit where it’s due.’

The New Humanist, a vocal opponent of Benedict’s visit to the UK in September, felt confident enough to state: ‘There does appear to have been a change in tone from an organisation that has long given the impression that it is opposed to condoms in all circumstances.’ Such has been the near tectonic shift from blaming the pope for killing Africans to praising him for rescuing them that even the continent itself piped up: ‘Africa welcomes pope’s comments on condoms’, ran a Agence France-Presse headline.

Yet just as it was absurd to blame leaders of the Catholic Church for the problem of AIDS/HIV in Africa, so it is equally ridiculous to see the pope as the continent’s redeemer. In both cases there is an idealism at work, an idealism that would embarrass the most immaterial of philosophers. For in this idealism, ideas – Catholic ideas – are all that matter. The pope articulates one idea, people die; he articulates another, people live. It is an idealism that makes mere objects of Africans – objects to be commanded at the behest of an idea. Of course it helps the delusion if one makes a particular assumption – which is that Africans are a bit, well, simple. Not completely simple – the racism would be almost too much to bear – but certainly simpler than their Western Catholic brethren who have long taken church doctrine with a pinch of guilt. Hence as Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee put it, the ‘helpless Third World poor… die for their misplaced faith’. What else could they do, these simple, simple souls?

Unfortunately, this idealism, borne aloft by a whole heap of unspoken prejudices about African people, ignores some very material facts, not least the poverty of these countries. And in poor countries without medical infrastructure, without the drugs that now keep alive Western HIV sufferers, is it any wonder that far more people die from AIDS than in the West? Perhaps, just perhaps, a lack of development, not an excess of popery, lies at the heart of African countries’ inability to deal with the spread of horrible diseases.

This underdevelopment, this lack of socio-economic progress explains something else, too. Given the often dire circumstances in which some Africans find themselves – with mortality rates far higher than in the West and average life-spans far shorter – is it really that surprising that contraception is not at the top of many African people’s list of priorities? After all, with life considerably more precarious, one’s perception of risk is probably a little bit different to that of Westerners.

There is something obsessive about this focus on HIV/AIDS in Africa. All other concerns are eclipsed. It is not as if there are no other diseases ruining the lives of people who live in the poorer parts of Africa. In fact there are several that kill far more than HIV/AIDS does. Malaria and lower respiratory problems account for millions more deaths than HIV/AIDS. Even diarrhoea, often little more than an inconvenience in the developed world, rivals HIV/AIDS as a major killer. Yet, as Nathalie Rothschild has pointed out on spiked, the attention given to these other diseases is minimal compared to that given to HIV/AIDS. Why? Because the sex lives of Africans are of considerable interest to a Western mindset increasingly obsessed with ensuring that the wretched of the earth adjust to present conditions. And that means keeping the population down. In the baleful words of one of the pope’s newfound supporters: ‘Condoms should also be used to help reduce poverty and overpopulation, by allowing poor parents to manage their family size.’

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics World


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