(His Holiness) the Pope is in Africa and has made another pronouncement which has upset many of his fans and all of his critics.
It is the old question of condoms.
He says that not only are they wrong but they also make the AIDS epidemic worse.
Now Africa is one of his biggest fan bases and also, overwhelmingly, the continent most effected by this ferocious virus.
Oddly, he seems to be, for once, in agreement with a lot of African males.
Aids campaigners have been working for years, trying to convince reluctant Africans to drop their cultural prejudices which sees the use of contraceptives as unmasculine.
The Pope, of course, doesn’t share that particular prejudice but his comments have threatened to undo a lot of the work which was gone on to try and control an infection which is killing Africans in their millions.
Today there are 33 million people living with the HIV virus and two thirds of them are in Africa.
Even a significant proportion of his flock have spoken out against his position on contraception and many more quietly ignore his advice even in the purest of marriages.
Pope Benedict XVI has ignored his critics but it looks to us on the outside that he is also ignoring the plight of millions of sufferers worldwide.
The argument about condoms is that only are they not helping to stop AIDS but they are actually increasing the risk. This is bunkum – he is making that age old mistake of putting two unrelated facts together to demonstrate cause and effect. The argument goes that condom use is higher in communities with higher HIV prevalence. Well, it would be wouldn’t it. Aspirin usage is higher amongst people who suffer from headaches.
His Holiness should not be entering this argument any more than he should be trying to twist modern scientific discoveries in fertility to prove the truth behind the Virgin Birth.
The uncomfortable truth, from my highly skeptical position, is that the Roman Catholic Church has bumped into a theological brick wall.
It is perfectly right for us liberal minded non-Catholics to see the use of condoms as a non-debatable asset in the admittedly more complex argument about prevention and cures.
It is easy for us to see that contraception with the protective qualities of the condom must be an infection shield.
It is also easy for us, maybe too easy, to see the Pope’s position as inhumane, uncaring and, possibly, criminal.
Some argue that a high percentage of those African AIDS deaths are the direct responsibility of the Vatican – mostly specifically deliverable to the late Pope John Paul II’s doorstep.
Now I do not believe that Benedict is a bad man and I don’t even think he is a stupid man.
He spoke this week about how his cardinals need to use the internet to learn about the real World and he has had the grace to admit making mistakes.
Most of the World think that his attitude to condoms is just one of those mistakes.
Benedict knows all about the AIDS epidemic, for sure. He is a devout Christian with a profound belief in man’s responsibility to love his neighbour, so I have no doubt that his heart goes out to all those dying men, women and children who may just be dying because of the consequences of his belief.
The trouble is that he is a Roman Catholic.
One of his religion’s most distinctive arguments is centred on its concept of the sanctity of life.
Abortion is wrong, in the Church’s view, because it is simply an act of man taking a human life.
Contraception is wrong for the same reason. By preventing a birth, man is denying a human life.
It is a difficult position to liberalise.
Just as it is difficult for those of us who live our lives outside of the rarefied world of the most chaste priests and cardinals to believe that the only function of sex is as a sanctification of marriage by the conception of children.
The vast majority of the World just doesn’t agree with the official Catholic position on these things.
I guess that most of us don’t give a fig about the Catholic church at all except that it appears to be causing so much damage throughout the World.
In spite of all of that, I feel some sympathy for Benedict.
He is a kind man, a gentle man, a loving man, no doubt, but he is stuck with a set of arguments that he is intelligent enough to see form some of the foundation stones for the whole edifice of his religion.
OK, no one cares that much about the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, or the exact composition of the Holy Trinity any more. If you don’t believe in it, it doesn’t do anyone any harm.
But, if the Pope started to argue that he thinks it would help the poor and the dying if he were to ditch belief in those pretty fundamental tenets of his faith, then the whole thing would come tumbling down.
I think this is also true for contraception.
I suspect he curses the problem when he is alone in his cell but the historical strength of Catholicism was always the granite strength of its tenets.
Once you start saying, let’s close our eyes to this business of the sanctity of marriage, the significance of abortion and the implied premeditated abortion in contraception, then you have started to unravel the pullover.
His Holiness is trapped by his own faith….if he lets these threads go, he would soon be standing naked, just another social working priest with a woolly vision of God.
Did someone say The Church of England?
I am more amazed by all those millions of people who still call themselves Roman Catholics whilst deciding to cherry pick the bits they like and ignore the stuff that causes problems.
So Benedict XVI is wrong, as seen from a liberal perspective, but he is also tragically brave in sticking to his faith whilst all around him are really saying you got it wrong mate. Tragedies are one thing when they happen to individuals with no outside responsibilities but his tragedy is insignificant when compared to the lives and deaths of all those millions.
I wonder if he ever fell in love; that would have opened his eyes.