Monday, April 11, 2005

The Pope and Condoms

Spiked's Brendan O'Neill appears to share my misgivings about the line of argument in Michela Wrong's article in the New Statesman, the cover of which last week proclaimed that the Pope "did more to spread AIDS around Africa than 'prostitution and the trucking industry combined".

Firstly be points to a lack of correlation between the prevalence of HIV in the some of the worst hit parts of southern Africa and the number of observant catholics in those same countries: fewer than 5% in Botswana, around 7% in South Africa and 10-20% in Swaziland. Next he suggests that the catholic minorities in these societies are probably not comparatively more HIV-prone than their ancestor worshipping compatriots.

This kind of data alone should be enough to undermine Wrong's damnation of the late pontiff, but O'Neill presses on into the heart of darkness, strongly suggesting (without actually scribbling the words) that people that desire Africans to use more condoms might secretly also like to have them sterilised - for them the problems of poverty and starvation are in some sense 'caused' by an excess of black babies. The same individuals also tend to harbour the prejudice that "Africans are gullible, fickle, easily led astray by wicked men and incapable of working out for themselves what a condom does and doesn't do." Apparently, they would prefer it if the whole world was more like theirs, one where you can cover the average 75 year lifespan in relative comfort, and thus find the spectacle of old fashioned Human evolution down in Africa rather disconcerting.

However, O'Neill skirts around these issues a bit, to say the least: "In underdeveloped countries it is often important to have large families, so that there are more individuals who can work and take care of their parents as they get older and can no longer work."

True enough, reproduction rather than contented consumerism is Nature's underlying response to death. Human societies throughout history have responded to the selection pressures of disease and premature death by starvation by producing more not less children. Indeed, there can be few families in any part of the world that reproduce for the socio-economic benefit of their tribe, nation or continent. Generally they do so in order to guarantee their own descent. Left to their own devices without state interference hardly any parents would choose to limit their family size to one child if there was a substantial risk of that child not reaching reproductive age.

O'Neill quotes a recent survey which found that 90% of people in Mexico and Brazil support sex education for the under 14s. Yet in practice the majority of Latin American women will still start families much earlier than their Western equivalents and the size of families is larger too. This suggests that cultural factors are combining with the economic and the 'natural' ones to limit the use of birth control.

In my own experience of Latin America, macho culture plays a key role in this. The more 'folkloric' the demographic, the more likely the males are to regard the use of condoms and other forms of birth control as a potential threat to the prevailing sexual-political order in their village. Divorcing sex from reproduction wreaks havoc with traditional value-systems as we have seen in our own society. Condoms come with a cultural payload and it may not be such a good idea for the Church, of all public institutions, to become deeply embroiled in the issue of their use. The problem is that secular, consumerist society expects the Church to act like some sort of guardian of all the ideals that we otherwise disrespect on a daily basis.

O'Neill's piece ends with another important observation: "These hollow attacks on the Pope are merely the flipside of the hollow canonisation of the Pope that is taking place elsewhere. Both sides have made the Pope into something he was not, in order to peddle their own ideas and prejudices."

True enough again, but strictly speaking what the Pope actually was was an old man in a funny white outfit reputedly based on late Roman secular garb whose vocation involved professing an essentially old-fashioned moral code, some of which would make us think he was serenely brave and spiritual, while a lot of it bordered on offensive bigotry.

Suppose we could see things for what they are before all the complex ideas and associations get in the way, all those symbolic references, the politics, economics, metaphysics and a host of other ics, the world would indeed be a different place, but not necessarily a more bearable/enjoyable one.

Meanwhile my mother watched the funeral and said that "the chanting" was enough to make her want to convert to catholicism. True to form, my father complained that the choir and the orchestra were mediocre and the whole thing rather less grand than the setting suggested. Whoever decided to put Prince Charles next to Robert Mugabe deserves canonisation.

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