The Pope, Lies and Condoms

Friday, 15 January 2010 12:46

Tanya Gold is a Guardian columnist whose style is trenchant criticism of the stupid, the self-deluded, and those who manipulate the truth for their own benefit. She also makes her readers laugh – well, most of them. Last September she turned her attention to the Pope’s forthcoming visit to Britain in 2010.

No doubt Gold has views about the Catholic Church and what elevates one man to a position of great power, including the power of infallibility, but here she kept her views to herself. What interested her was one particular Pope, Pope Benedict XVI, formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger. When he arrives in Britain he will be afforded the greatest respect by all our leaders, none of whom will reprimand him or his church for acts that many people would regard as most reprehensible.

Consider first the way that Benedict dealt with those priests who sexually assaulted children. We expect that a head teacher who discovers that members of his staff were sexually assaulting children would immediately remove the teachers from all contact with the children and inform the police. Benedict did not do remove from their posts the priests who, in the years preceding his elevation to Pope, had been protected by the Church from prosecution. In May 2009, the report of the nine-year inquiry into widespread sexual and physical assaults by priests in Ireland on children in their care was published. It was a record of great cruelty. However, Christian Brothers, many of whose members had perpetrated this cruelty, had successfully prevented any priest involved being prosecuted. In November 2009, the longest running sexual abuse case in England, this concerning the De La Salle Brothers in York, found that the Catholic Diocese of Middlesbrough was responsible for what had happened. The Diocese is considering an appeal. In neither Ireland nor Middlesbrough did the Pope intervene to point out to all implicated in these evil acts that their duty was to acknowledge their guilt and pay the price. However, as Gold pointed out, he had instructed that prayers be said in perpetuity for the victims, and ordered that the Church must try to ensure that men ‘with deep-seated homosexual tendencies’ did not enter the priesthood.

By blaming gays the Pope was avoiding having to face a very important truth about men who are deprived of ordinary sexual contact with a partner. In prisons and in armies at war some men remain faithful to their partners but others resort to whatever sexual opportunities come their way. Thus many priests, required by their Church to be sexually abstinenent, resort to vulnerable women and to children.

Gold pointed out that Benedict homosexuality as ‘an intrinsic moral evil’. He is also ‘active in the suppression of Liberation Theology, a Latin American movement that insists that social justice the central purpose of Christianity; that good Catholics should also be political activists who fight for the rights of the slum-living poor. Ratzinger was repelled, and dismissed it as “a fundamentalist threat to the faith of the Church”.’ As is, I suppose, the instruction, ‘Sell what you have, give the money to the poor, and follow me.’

And then there are condoms. Gold wrote, ‘Aids, Ratzinger says, “cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems.” This is a lie. Not a fantasy, like the virgin birth and all the other magical, mystical nonsense, but a dangerous lie. There are, Your Holiness, more than 12 million Aids orphans in Africa. Twenty-two million Africans have Aids and the UN fears that eventually 90 million could die.’

The human capacity to deny a truth that is right in front of them is quite extraordinary. There are people who deny that the Holocaust ever happened. In Australia where evidence of climate change is as easy to spot as one its millions of eucalyptus trees, some people still deny that anything untoward is happening to the climate. Catholics are required to deny a great many truths that are right before their eyes, but, if you are a Catholic and are sexually active, denying that condoms are the best preventative of HIV that we currently have is a remarkably stupid thing to do.

Elizabeth Pisani is an epidemiologist researching HIV and Aids. Her book The Wisdom of Whores is truthful and funny. She wrote,

The Vatican clearly believes that condoms are the work of the devil. And they are perfectly willing to claim that black is white to dissuade people from using them. ‘The Aids virus is roughly 450 times smaller than the spermatozoon,’ Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, told the BBC’s Panorama programme in 2003.’The spermatozoon can easily pass through the “net” that is formed by the condom.” This man, who presides over the Family Council of a state with no women and no children, believes that sperm can pass through a condom. He may also believe that a camel can pass through the eye of a needle, but there has never been any recorded instance of either thing happening. Condoms can occasionally burst – up to 10 per cent of the time if they have been stored badly or used incorrectly – and then anything can get through them. But properly used, a condom holds water, it holds semen, it holds sperm and it holds viruses. Fewer than 2 per cent of heterosexuals who are infected with HIV pass the virus on to their long-term partners if they always use a condom, compared with 10 to 18 per cent of those who don’t always use a condom. (p.201)

Pisani tries to teach sexually active people about HIV and Aids but, as she wrote,

The thing about faith, about doctrine, about ideologies of any sort, is that you can’t fight them with facts. If someone believes that wearing an amulet will protect them from the Evil Eye, or that they can make their neighbour sick by sticking pins into a wax doll, if someone believes that condoms are inherently evil, there’s not a damned thing I, as a scientist, can do about it. (p.203)

Ten days later the columnist Melanie McDonagh responded to Gold. Her article reminded me of that written about me by Catherine Pepinster, editor of The Tablet. When Pepinster interviewed me at my home she made it clear to me that she was offended that I had dared to criticise the Catholic Church in my book What Should I Believe? She told me that the Church was her family. If we are fond of our family, we do not like outsiders to criticise them. However, most of us will readily admit that our family has its peculiarities. Except, as I gathered from Pepinster, the Catholic Church. McDonagh seems to take the same view. She summarised Gold’s criticisms and said, ‘It made me a bit sick, reading all this. Partly because it was hateful; chiefly because it was false.’ What followed demonstrated how difficult determining the truth is and how slippery lies can be.

It is not easy to be as certain as we need to be to know that what is before us is the truth. We need to compare what we see with what other people say they see. We need to gather evidence, and we need to distinguish what we see from what we wish to see. We have to be truthful with ourselves. All this is much harder to do than to lie. Lying is easy.

Wishing upon a star does not ensure that your dream does come true. Reality is indifferent to our wishes. Giuseppe Caramazza, a Catholic priest with the Comboni Missionaries, was another of Gold’s critics. He wrote, ‘The only way to stop HIV/Aids is to ask people to lead responsible sex lives.’ He pointed out that, ‘Most of the thousands of volunteers who every day reach out and touch the lives of those infected, their families and their communities, are Christians.’

Pisani responded,

It seems it is absolutely fine to show compassion for people once they've become infected with HIV, to care for them, to provide fabulously expensive drugs to raise them off their deathbeds. But this Lazarus complex seems to me only half-Christian. Why can't we extend our compassion to those who are not yet infected, and provide them with all the information and tools they need to stay uninfected? Whether the pope likes it or not, those tools include condoms.

Benedict’s dislike of condoms is based on the teaching by the Catholic Church that sex should occur only in marriage and only for the procreation of children. Caramazza wants all adults to make this their lifestyle. How far from the truth of human life can that be? Sex is about so much more than procreation. It should never be used by the stronger person to inflict pain on the weaker. However, as we live in our own individual world of meaning, sex is an absolutely vital way for one person to be in close contact with another, be it a commercial transaction or an old married couple comforting one another as the night draws in. But how could Benedict, trapped in his Catholic world, understand that?

Last modified on Tuesday, 17 May 2011 05:30