Paul Vallely: Absurd words open to misinterpretation

Related Topics

How could the Pope have said something so manifestly absurd as he was arriving for his first visit to a continent where Aids has killed more than 25 million people over the past three decades?

He began by saying that the distribution of condoms would not resolve the pandemic, which was fairly uncontroversial. Pope Benedict's motivation for saying so might be metaphysical or moral but few Aids professionals would disagree with the idea. But what could the pontiff be thinking about when he added that, indeed, condoms "aggravate" or "increase" the problem?

Many commentators leapt to the assumption that he was reiterating the wild opinion of the late Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, who as head of the Vatican's pontifical council for the family, claimed in 2003 the HIV virus could pass through the latex of condoms. Or perhaps the Pope was referring to the fact that condoms sometimes break, slip or are put on incorrectly.

It is hard to know because the words he used were so vague. When a reporter suggested that the Catholic Church's position on the fight against Aids was unrealistic and ineffective the Pope responded: "I would say the opposite." He cited the importance of the Church's care for Aids victims – the Catholic Church is the world's single biggest provider of care to people with Aids through its hospitals, hospices and orphanages on many continents – and the Church's insistence that sex should be a profound expression of love rather than a hedonistic self-indulgence. On condoms he offered only an aside: "One cannot overcome the problem with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, they increase the problem."

What seems most likely is that he was suggesting something more tangential: condoms are the product of a culture where sexual licence is acceptable, and this culture needs to be challenged. But his words implied more.

Most Aids campaigners agree the best way to avoid transmission of the virus is to abstain from sexual intercourse or have a monogamous relationship with an uninfected person. That is why the strategy in Africa is the ABC campaign, which stands for Abstinence, Be faithful, and Condoms. But it is no use the Pope sticking to A and B, then implying that C undermines the other two prongs of the attack.

In Africa today, many men routinely seek additional sexual partners and many young women have sex with several older men to provide them with material comforts. It may well be that Africans are no more promiscuous than the rest of the world. But poverty, poor education and the lack of effective health services make the consequences of such attitudes more highly visible.

Abstinence and fidelity may be admirable aspirations but there is a need for other approaches. Condoms have been shown to reduce HIV transmission by 80 per cent. And they are most effective in slowing the disease's spread among high-risk groups such as sex workers and customers, who are perhaps least susceptible to papal obsecrations.

There was a time when it seemed the Church might take a more common-sense view. The retired Cardinal Martini of Milan, who might now be pope had the post become vacant earlier, suggested that in some situations – such as where one partner in a married couple was HIV positive – the use of condoms might constitute "a lesser evil".

But a 200-page report by a panel of scientists and theologians on the subject, commissioned by the Pontifical Council for Health and sent to the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog in 2006, appears mired inside the Curia. Apparently there is too much disagreement about its recommendations which some conservatives feel will be "misinterpreted" by the media and the public.

The trouble is that, when it comes to ambiguous statements that invite misinterpretation, Pope Benedict – to judge by his controversial pronouncements on Islam and his miscalculations over the Holocaust-denying bishop Richard Williamson – does not seem to have that good a track record himself.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Not only is Liz Kendall a shy Tory, but her words are also likely to appeal to racists

Charlie Brinkhurst Cuff
Andy Coulson  

Andy Coulson: With former News of the World editor cleared of perjury charges, what will he do next?

James Cusick James Cusick
Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

But if a real smoking gun is found, that might change things, says Tom Peck
Twenty two years later Jurassic Park series faces questions over accuracy of the fictional dinosaurs in it

Tyrannosaurus wrecked?

Twenty two years on, Jurassic Park faces questions over accuracy
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
Genes greatly influence when and how many babies a woman will have, study finds

Mother’s genes play key role in decision to start a family

Study's findings suggest that human fertility is still evolving
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
England can win the Ashes – and Elvis Presley will present the urn

England can win the Ashes – and Elvis will present the urn

In their last five Test, they have lost two and drawn two and defeated an India side last summer who thought that turning up was competing, says Stephen Brenkley
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)