With the Pope arriving, attacks on the the Vatican have reached something of a fever pitch. Criticisms of the Vatican range from the valid and utterly necessary to the downright stupid. Commentators are, for example, absolutely correct to attack the catholic hierarchy for covering up cases of child abuse. Yet the oft repeated claim that paedophilia is “endemic” within the catholic church is simply not supported by facts.
Meanwhile the insistence that the “aids spreading” pontiff has a moral obligation to condone contraception is, in my opinion, half baked and politically problematic. The most obvious problem with this line of argument is that (notwithstanding lower level catholics spreading the myth that condoms don’t work) the church’s teachings on sexual behaviour are not actually conducive to the spread of HIV. Sex within marriage but without condoms is likely to keep people relatively safe. The usual objection here is that people obviously won’t stay monogamous ( because, you know, having sex is a natural urge man), and so the pope, by this slightly twisted logic, is responsible for the consequences of condom-free polygamy. But if people arent obeying the Vatican’s strictures against sleeping around, then why would they simultaneously base their decision on whether to skin up simply on what the pope says? This indeed might explain the lack of empirical evidence for popery spreading AIDS: as Brennan O’ Neil notes, the 5 countries in Africa most affected by aids are all minority-catholic.
But let us, for the sake of argument, assume that the Vatican’s position on contraception hinders, albeit indirectly, the fight against HIV. The idea that this makes the pontiff morally obliged to alter the church’s position on contraception is nonetheless misplaced. Were Benedict a public health professional I would absolutely expect him to promote the use of condoms. Yet for better or worse, his job as pontiff is to promote what he and the church consider to be the word of god. Now, as an atheist I am not an expert on such matters. Yet from what I understand the moral strictures of the lord do not change all that regularly – and are liable to remain constant even as their practical consequences are altered.
Those who demand that the Pope reverses the moral teachings of the church, on the grounds of public health, fail to properly engage with what his role entails. But more generally, they demonstrate a very narrow, philistine conception of the role played by moral and ideological leaders. They appear to believe that the such figures should base their pronouncements not upon genuine perceptions of right and wrong, but should simply decide what to say by calculating the impact of their words on public utility. Had Rousseau and Robespierre self-censored on these grounds they may not have written the words that inspired the bloody and calamitous French Revolution – an event which in retrospect was crucial in propelling Europe into modernity and its subjects into citizenship.
Of course a society needs more than ideologues. It also needs doctors, scientists, public health planners and all manner of people dedicated to protecting us from immediate physical harm. But to reduce morality and philosophy to instruments of public welfare, to demand that these pursuits be nothing more than handmaidens to the cause of public health, is to limit our humanity in the present and our lives in the future.