The Pope says AB and his critics say C but I think ABC

“I would say that this problem of AIDS cannot be overcome with advertising slogans. If the soul is lacking, if Africans do not help one another, the scourge cannot be resolved by distributing condoms; quite the contrary, we risk worsening the problem. The solution can only come through a twofold commitment: firstly, the humanisation of sexuality, in other words a spiritual and human renewal bringing a new way of behaving towards one another; and secondly, true friendship, above all with those who are suffering, a readiness – even through personal sacrifice – to be present with those who suffer. And these are the factors that help and bring visible progress.

“Therefore, I would say that our double effort is to renew the human person internally, to give spiritual and human strength to a way of behaving that is just towards our own body and the other person’s body; and this capacity of suffering with those who suffer, to remain present in trying situations.

“I believe that this is the first response [to AIDS] and that this is what the Church does, and thus, she offers a great and important contribution. And we are grateful to those that do this.”


So spoke Pope Benedict several days ago.

And boy did it set off a media firestorm.

In the news and opinion articles that I’ve read, I haven’t seen much mention of the so-called ABC strategy.  That is the strategy that Uganda used to dramatically reduce that nation’s HIV/AIDS infection rate, where A stands for Abstinence, B stands for Be faithful to a single committed partner, and C stands for Condom use if you can’t commit to the first two points.

To me this just seems like a no-brainer.  Abstinence is indeed the surest way to prevent infection (recognizing the slight chance of infection from intravenous sources etc.).  Faithfulness is also excellent, if indeed both partners remain true to their vows (recognizing that many faithful spouses have been infected by unfaithful partners).  Condoms have a fairly high success ratio … I’ve heard as high as 99% protection and as low as 80% (would you encourage your child to play Russian Roulette on condition that he/she only places a single cartidge in the cylinder?), so it makes sense to use them if engaging in risky behaviour.

The Pope’s opposition to condom distribution is consistent with Roman Catholic teachings forbidding contraceptives.

While I think the media has distorted his message, I do think he is wrong on this issue.  Whether a sex trade worker or the faithful spouse of an unfaithful partner, a lot of people are dying who might have lived if a condom had been used.

However I also think that his critics who discount abstinence and faithfulness are equally wrong.  I don’t see the same media indignation over the way that abstinence and faithfulness are dismissed as unrealistic.

For what I consider a fair analysis of HIV/AIDS prevention, check out the April 2008 article by Green and Ruark in First Things – “AIDS and the Churchs: Getting the Story Right“.

3 Responses to “The Pope says AB and his critics say C but I think ABC”

  1. Eric says:

    I think the uproar was the insinuation (percieved anyway) that the Pope was connecting condom use to increased HIV transmission. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a portion of a speech has been taken out of context though, and certainly the only way to deal with a problem that is directly linked to societal behaviours – like HIV is in Africa – is through changing society itself. The outright refusal/rejection of condoms though is irrisponsible as there are many who, as pointed out in the article you linked to, become exposed through no fault of their own.

  2. Phil L says:

    Eric, I agree that anyone engaging in risky sexual behaviour ought to use condoms. However I see the logic in his statement that indiscriminate condom distribution can increase promiscuous behaviour.
    By the way, the African nations having the highest percentage of Roman Catholic adherants also have the lowest HIV/AIDS rates. Food for thought.

  3. Eric says:

    Phil, I would suspect that the relative lack of conflict in some of those countries, (Cameroon) as well as urbanization and the different mores of individual ethnic groups (rights of women, circumcision, what makes a person eligible for marriage etc), play an important role as well. That said, there is no question that religious conviction and a change of heart (on a societal scale) is needed for the HIV/AIDS problem to be dealt with, and condom use is not, on its own, going to make teh overwhelming difference that some seem to claim it will.