The Catholic Church's Next Scandal

At their latest meeting in Rome, African bishops ignored Catholicism’s greatest failing—the AIDS crisis ravaging their continent.

Last week, at the opening session of a synod of African bishops in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI condemned what he called “the virus of fundamentalism” that threatens Africa. Fundamentalists act, he said, “in the name of God, but with a logic that is opposed to divine logic; teaching and working not with love and respect for freedom, but with intolerance and violence.” It was an apt warning, conjuring images of Islamic extremists and Bible-thumping evangelicals. But there is a Catholic fundamentalism, too, that the pope failed to acknowledge, and it, alas, reinforces another virus, especially in Africa. In the past 30 years, concurrent with a tripling of church membership in Africa to almost 150 million people, the AIDS pandemic has ravaged the continent, killing millions, orphaning more than 11 million children, and infecting more than 20 million with HIV.

Unlike Protestant and Muslim fundamentalisms, which are tied to fixed readings of holy texts, Catholic fundamentalism derives from a rigid defense of papal authority and boils down to a fixation on sexual morality.

What is the Catholic Church doing about that? Sadly, very little. Unlike Protestant and Muslim fundamentalisms, which are tied to fixed readings of holy texts, Catholic fundamentalism derives from a rigid defense of papal authority and boils down to a fixation on sexual morality. That has turned the Catholic hierarchy into a raging enemy of condom use—even when it comes to preventing the spread of AIDS.

When Pope Benedict visited Africa last March, he caused a storm of rebuke by asserting that condoms “increase the problem” of HIV/AIDS. The Catholic campaign against condoms has included a bishop claiming, according to a BBC report in 2007, that some condoms from Europe are purposely infected with HIV to kill Africans. Less crackpot, but still damaging are more typical claims, including one made last week by the synod general secretary, that condoms don’t work well in tropical heat. Church leaders assert that condoms give people a false sense of security, which leads them to have more sex, thereby increasing their chances of infection. All of this ignores what has become an international scientific consensus—that prevention is the key to stemming the epidemic, and condoms properly and consistently used are an essential part of prevention. “Properly and consistently used” is the operative phrase there, of course, and that assumes widespread programs of sex education, which are also inhibited by the Catholic hierarchy’s preference for the “just say no” abstinence approach.

The Catholic leadership is trapped in a dilemma of its own making. A brief history helps understand why. More than a century ago, when the pope lost his temporal authority over the papal territories in Italy and was humiliated by becoming a “prisoner in the Vatican,” Catholics rallied to him as never before. Only then, in 1870, was he declared infallible in “matters of faith and morals.” When the pope condemned “artificial contraception” as gravely sinful in 1930 while endorsing “natural” modes of preventing conception like “rhythm,” it was widely assumed by Catholics that he was speaking infallibly. Papal authority was tied directly to the most intimate choices Catholic men and women could make.

But ideas of “natural” changed. With the invention of the birth control pill (by a Catholic doctor) in the 1960s, church leaders openly began reconsidering the question. Pope John XXIII appointed a commission to study it, which led many Catholics to assume change was coming. The commission was almost unanimous in recommending that the ban be lifted, not only on the Pill, but on all forms of birth control. This was a watershed moment, showing that Catholic leaders, too, could grasp that static notions of “nature” could give way to more open and dynamic ideas. But what about the other Catholic prohibitions that depended on a pre-modern idea of “natural law” (including masturbation, and, especially, abortion)? More dramatically, what about all the Catholics who’d already been condemned to hell for using birth control? John’s successor, Paul VI, panicked, thinking a change would open a door to moral confusion and undermine papal authority. And so, against the commission’s recommendation, he reaffirmed the ban in 1968.

By then, the issue was no longer contraception: It was papal authority. Most Catholics had seen through the old logic and began to make their own decisions about birth control—the true undermining of authority. Popes and bishops ever since have played a double game—condemning birth control for the sake of “consistent teaching,” while taking for granted that they are being ignored both by lay people and the priests who hear their confessions.

The game became deadly when the tsunami of HIV/AIDS hit—especially in Africa, where Catholic bishops, presiding over a grassroots network of service and education, still have wide influence and prestige. Yet with their one-note insistence on abstinence as the only solution, they have been an obstacle to the urgent project of putting in place institutions of prevention, harm reduction, and safer sex. With logic that is anything but divine, Catholic leaders even forbid condom use for married couples with one infected partner. Meanwhile, Catholic priests, nuns, and lay workers who run health centers, schools, and orphanages throughout Africa quietly help clients understand how to reduce their risks of infection. A few bishops discretely promote condoms as a lesser evil, and one (Kevin Dowling of South Africa) has openly challenged the Vatican to change its teaching. But the overwhelming institutional weight of the Catholic Church continues to be thrown on the side of the virus. The result has been and will be the deaths of Africans. The virus of Catholic fundamentalism infects that beleaguered continent. At the Vatican, that, the church’s most grievous failure, is not being discussed.

James Carroll's recent book is Practicing Catholic, a story of American belief. He is a columnist for the Boston Globe and Distinguished-Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University. His other books include An American Requiem, which won the National Book Award, House of War, winner of the PEN-Galbraith Award, and Constantine's Sword, now an acclaimed documentary.