Catholics, condoms and confusion

The Pope’s now notorious comment concerning condom usage that marked the beginning of his weeklong visit to Africa earlier this month has reignited a decades-long battle between church leaders and public health organisations about the role of religion in the fight against HIV.

During his inaugural visit to Africa, Pope Benedict XVI stated that HIV/Aids “cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems”.

The Catholic Church’s stance on condoms is not new.
Pope Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, made several comments against condom use throughout his time in the papacy. Gregg Gonsalves of the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition says, “This is a long-standing thing. We keep getting pope after pope who just doesn’t get it. [The Church] has got to get together with modern science. You know, the world is changing — and we know that condoms — save lives.”

Despite the Vatican’s official policy on condoms, many church leaders and members across Africa have been taking more of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach. Nworah Ayogu, a Nigerian-born Catholic now studying at Harvard Medical School, says, “I feel like there wasn’t such a clear line before [the Pope’s comments]. There was the whole mentality that ‘it’s the lesser of two evils’. I remember one bishop saying that in some circumstances it was allowable to promote condom use.”

Simao Cacumba of the Association for Integration of Youth and Children in Social Life in Angola, where the population is 65% Catholic, says “the church does not allow people to use condoms” because “then you are promoting prostitution. But most churches say to people ‘we have condoms, and you need to choose yourself’.”

Father Chris Townsend of the South African Catholic Bishop’s Conference (SACBC) says that “in South Africa it’s our approach that we will teach people about condoms. We don’t encourage them but we don’t discourage them.”

In light of the high number of HIV infections within Southern Africa, the SACBC asked the Vatican to review the stance on condoms as a preventive measure, “particularly in situations where one person in a marriage is HIV-positive, and the other is HIV-negative”, says Townsend.

There are fears, however, that the work of Catholic organisations HIV/Aids may be hindered by the Pope’s comments. When Cacumba approached Angolan civil society organisations to sign a petition against the Pope’s comments, “they refused to make a comment. And of course they are also Catholic, they don’t want to criticise their leaders. All the networks working on Aids, they didn’t say anything regarding this.”

According to student Ayogu, “he is the Holy Father, and our spiritual leader, his words carry a lot of weight in all aspects of your life. For African Catholics, I think that this can definitely affect the way they think about condoms.”

While Townsend contends that the Catholic Church is focusing on “long-term behaviour change” rather than condom use alone, other religious organisations state that this isn’t a realistic view, and therefore more openly allow the use of condoms by their constituents. Dr Shoyad Wadee of the Islamic Medical Association of South Africa says: “I think that people’s behaviour is unlikely to change in terms of multiple sexual partners.”

For Rabbi Osher Feldman of the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation, “Medically, if [condoms] protect against Aids, then we must do whatever is necessary to protect lives.”

Wadee added that in South Africa, “Muslim leaders have tended not to comment on what doctors should and shouldn’t do in terms of condoms. If an Islamic religious leader makes a comment, he doesn’t hold the same standing as the Pope. The Pope represents God on Earth. From that perspective [his comments are] very damaging.”

Mara Kardas-Nelson

Mara Kardas-Nelson

Mara Kardas-Nelson is a journalist with the Mail & Guardian's Centre for Health Journalism, where she focuses on access to medicine, health policy, financing, and planning. She has been contributing to the Mail & Guardian since 2009, writing on a wide variety of topics ranging from the environment to development to local culture. In 2010 she shared a Mondi Shanduka Newspaper award with photographer Sam Reinders for their work on acid mine drainage in Gauteng and Mpumalanga. Her work has appeared in publications across Africa, North America, and Europe.  Read more from Mara Kardas-Nelson

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