By Rev. Dr. Bernard J.O’Connor
On March 17, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI responded to questions from journalists during his flight while en route to Cameroon. Zenit International News Service published this interview (http://www.zenit.org/phprint.php ) the following day, enabling us to critique the response of the Pope to an issue raised by France 2’s Philippe Visseyrias. He asked the Pontiff about the “spread of Aids” in Africa and referred to the prevalent perception that “the position of the Catholic Church” is “unrealistic and ineffective.” Pope Benedict’s reply raised an almost global furor; with such outrage as that expressed by the First Lady of France and by Belgium’s House of Representatives being typical. But was this kind of indignation truly justified? Or does it actually symbolize a tendency of modern society to judge the worth of a view based upon a brief passage extracted from a text and which is oblivious to the surrounding context?
The specific papal reference to condom usage was terse, a mere 16 words. And common sense suggests that their interpretation requires recognition of how these relate to the parameters of the broader response. The Pope stated that the AIDS “problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it.” For this, some protesters, like those who gathered on March 22nd before Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, dubbed him “Benedict XVI Assassin.” But this accusation presumes that the Pope has been influenced by ignorance tantamount to criminal negligence. Few imagined, however, that the Pope’s comment could possibly parallel expertise existing in the scientific community. By way of exception, Luis Sergio Solimeo, writing for Tradition, Family and Property (online edition of March 27), identifies corroborative support from the Bureau of Global Health (USAID), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and from the AIDS Prevention Research Project (Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies).
Regrettably, the breadth and significance of Pope Benedict’s outlook has been rather obscured, if not lost, owing to the exclusive focus upon the condom aspect. However, the Pope has brought to our awareness that the Aids dilemma has actually evoked a profound and practical response from the Church. One need only think of the immense medical and relief service provided throughout Africa by the Sant’ Egidio community, the Camillians, and by scores of Sisters and dedicated laity. Their heroic efforts reinforce that the overall approach to the Aids crisis must incorporate two elements. The first is “bringing out the human dimension of sexuality,” which is to say that true “human renewal” must inaugurate “a new way of behaving towards others.” And the second is to offer “true friendship” to the afflicted, “a willingness to make sacrifices” on their behalf and with a resolve “to be alongside” them at every stage of their suffering.
And now the question must be raised of whether there are other agendas which feel threatened by the Pope’s stance. What are they? The Episcopal Conference of Nigeria, in an official Statement (May 13) courageously addressed the politically-charged issue, asserting that beneath the surface of the controversy lurks crass commercialism, condom export, combined with a “lack of the full comprehension of the situation in Africa.” Africa must not become “the guinea pig of foreign business ventures.”