Pope Was Right to Challenge the Cult of the Condom


Pope Benedict XVI made his comments on condoms in Africa more than a week ago, but the outrage they sparked shows no sign of abating.

Blasted by pundits from New York to New Zealand and politicians from Berlin to Brussels, the pope has been labeled "dangerous," "insulting," "a threat to public health" and "a preacher of death."

For all their fury, few of the pope's critics have bothered to engage the main point of his remarks -- a point focused not on the scientific properties of condoms but on the social policy of condom promotion. Responding to a journalist who characterized the Catholic Church's approach to fighting AIDS as "unrealistic and ineffective," Benedict argued that the Church's emphasis on sexual responsibility and behavioral change, as well as solidarity with the suffering, is "most effective." Africa's AIDS epidemic "cannot be overcome by money alone," he said, and "cannot be overcome with the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problem."

Blasphemous as such claims may be to Western ears, they are backed up by solid evidence. Just ask Edward C. Green, a director of the Harvard AIDS Prevention Research Project and self-proclaimed liberal who says that Benedict has the facts in his favor.

As Green explained last year in an article for First Things, "In every African country in which HIV infections have declined, this decline has been associated with a decrease in the proportion of men and women reporting more than one sex partner over the course of a year -- which is exactly what fidelity programs promote. The same association with HIV decline cannot be said for condom use, coverage of HIV testing, treatment for curable sexually transmitted infections, provision of antiretroviral drugs, or any other intervention or behavior."

The only other behavior often associated with a drop in HIV rates, Green said, is "a decline in premarital sex among young people." He concluded: "What the churches are inclined to do anyway" -- promote sexual abstinence before marriage and fidelity afterward -- "turns out to be what works best in AIDS prevention."

The poster child for this approach is Uganda, an African nation that has seen tremendous success in lowering HIV rates by using the "ABC" approach -- defined as, "Abstain, Be faithful or use Condoms." Peer-reviewed literature shows that the key to Uganda's success "was not increased condom use but reductions in the number of sexual partners," Green wrote.

The contrast between such myopic, culturally insensitive maneuvers and the grass-roots, faith-based work of churches that labor to strengthen marriages and protect the sexual innocence of children could hardly be starker.

A 2004 study by British anthropologists Tim Allen and Suzette Heald in the Journal of International Development made a similar observation. Citing the disparity between declining HIV rates in Uganda and skyrocketing rates in Botswana, they noted that "the promotion of condoms at an early stage proved to be counter-productive in Botswana, whereas the lack of condom promotion during the 1980s and early 1990s contributed to the relative success of behavior change strategies in Uganda."

That trend makes sense, Green argued, because while "risk-reduction" strategies focused on condom promotion show some success with high-risk groups such as prostitutes and their patrons, similar campaigns aimed at the general public often only encourage more sexual risk-taking "out of a false sense of personal safety that comes with using condoms some of the time."

Such campaigns also stir resentment among many Africans, who chafe at the sight of Western-funded aid workers driving trucks through their neighborhoods and tossing condoms at their children. The contrast between such myopic, culturally insensitive maneuvers and the grass-roots, faith-based work of churches that labor to strengthen marriages and protect the sexual innocence of children could hardly be starker. Benedict's critics should consider that contrast -- and the facts about AIDS-prevention successes in Africa -- before accusing him of disregarding the dignity and value of African lives.



Colleen Carroll Campbell. "Pope Was Right to Challenge the Cult of the Condom." St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (March 30, 2009).

Reprinted with permission of the author, Colleen Carroll Campbell.


Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, television and radio host and St. Louis-based fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She is the author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy. Colleen Carroll Campbell writes for a wide variety of national publications, speaks to audiences across America, and hosts her own television show, "Faith & Culture," on EWTN, the world's largest religious media network.  Her website is here.

Copyright © 2009 Colleen Carroll Campbell

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