No, the pope is not spreading AIDS, and he is not morally obliged to condone contraception

This post was written by Reuben Bard-Rosenberg on September 17, 2010
Posted Under: Uncategorized

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.

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Reader Comments

The Catholic Church goes around telling people that condoms don’t work! It selectively funds sexual health programmes that support its moral agenda! In these actions it is materially responsible for the spread of AIDS.

Does Herr Ratzinger have a right to privately believe that using condoms is sinful? Yes – everyone has the right to believe gibberish, and millions of people (including Reuben, apparently) unfortunately exercise that right to the full. Does Ratzinger have the right to use an enormous, impossibly rich institution to wage social war in Africa against the use of condoms? No he bloody doesn’t!

Is it right for people to be alarmed at an iron-age superstition wielding the economic and political forces of a world power in order to do things which cause the spread of AIDS? Yes! Should we make a lot of noise about how bad this is? Yes! Should the Catholic Church be stripped of its resources, its state, its seat on the UN, its vast wealth? Yes! What body of nonsense superstition has the right to an army and incalculable wealth in a world full of hunger and abject poverty?

And Reuben, all this stuff about ‘well, French revolutionaries were, like, ideological too’ – that’s very weak. French revolutionaries fought for ideas which served to liberate humanity and create all the modern rights which we enjoy today. Their ideas freed people’s minds from superstition and darkness, and they were right to fight for them. The Catholic Church wants to throw the world back into the dark ages and win political power for its priests.

If you refuse to see the difference between the two ideologies, you’ve lost all grip on reality.

#1 
Written By Ed Maltby on September 17th, 2010 @ 11:05 am
Kate

I find the accusation of ‘reductionism’ here quite unfortunately ironic. It is surely the church’s pronouncements on, and enforcement of, so-called sexual morality that enmeshes it in bio-political regimes, not the criticisms of the Church’s blindness to its effects that follow. Catholicism uses its own discourses on morality as a political instrument – its ‘genuine perceptions of right and wrong’ dictate the everyday lives of billions of people. My objections to the category of ‘morality’ itself aside, even Catholic morality should be reflexive enough to face up to the concrete effects of its preachings, and the historicity of its interpretation of ‘God’s word’.

Typically (as we well know) Western political regimes defend their own war-mongering, Roma- deporting ways with a logic that is self- sustaining and apparently exhaustive in its chosen category (DEMOCRACY). Clearly, Catholic discourse of ‘morality’ attempts something similar, in the hope of silencing opposition that does not operate on its terms. I’m all for recognising Catholicism as a religious philosophy and as important historical institution, but that recognition will always be in the form of critique, rather than as a validation of “morality” as an unavoidable operational category.

Admittedly, its secular double (‘public health’) also has a particular relation to power, and can be viewed as ‘moral’(ising),

As a (non-humanist) atheist, I’m not about to take Catholicism’s definition of “morality” uncritically

#2 
Written By Kate on September 17th, 2010 @ 12:24 pm
Kate

Sorry, thought I’d deleted the last bit. Went a bit wrong.

#3 
Written By Kate on September 17th, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

“The Catholic Church goes around telling people that condoms don’t work!”

Hence I said “aside from spreading the myth that condoms don’t work”, which as I noted is generally done by lower level functionaries in the church.

“It selectively funds sexual health programmes that support its moral agenda! In these actions it is materially responsible for the spread of AIDS.”

The low rates of HIV in uganda suggest that the promotion of fidelity and abstinence can – within certain cultural contexts – support a decline/stabalisation in HIV rates.

“French revolutionaries fought for ideas which served to liberate humanity and create all the modern rights which we enjoy today. Their ideas freed people’s minds from superstition and darkness, and they were right to fight for them. The Catholic Church wants to throw the world back into the dark ages and win political power for its priests.
If you refuse to see the difference between the two ideologies, you’ve lost all grip on reality.”

Read my piece again. I didn’t refuse to see the difference between the two. I brought the example of French revolutionaries to address the specific question of whether moral and ideological sentiments should be judged simlply by their immediate impact on public health and utility.

#4 
Written By Reuben on September 17th, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

Should moral and ideological sentiments be judged simply by their immediate impact on public health and utility? Well, not by the impact that they’ll have in the next 5 minutes, no. But by the public health implications of their overall political project? Sure! Why not?

The public health outcomes of the crushing of feudalism and the French Revolution’s assault on the power of religion were, medium to long-term, very good! The public health outcomes of the Bolsheviks’ expropriation of the church, socialisation of housework and democratisation of the economy (for as long as it lasted) – also very good.

The public health outcomes of the Catholic Church’s broad political project of attempting to outlaw contraception and abortion? Terrible. Like, really bad.

#5 
Written By Ed Maltby on September 17th, 2010 @ 1:16 pm
Owen

2 things that are worth pointing out here:

1) All anti-AIDS campaigns promote abstinence and fidelity. And yes, I’m sure they work to some extent. The difference is that the Catholic Church refuses to advocate condom use alongside the other two.

2) People who object to the Pope’s teachings on condoms aren’t calling for him to be banned from expressing them – just for him not to say them. Blurring the distinction between expressing disagreement and calling for censorship of those you disagree with is something Reuben has called others out for before, but which he seems to be doing here.

#6 
Written By Owen on September 17th, 2010 @ 6:12 pm

The public health outcomes of the Bolsheviks’ expropriation of the church, socialisation of housework and democratisation of the economy (for as long as it lasted) – also very good.

FOR AS LONG AS IT LASTED!

So within three years the country was gripped by famine, but for a few weeks things were really good!

#7 
Written By andy newman on September 17th, 2010 @ 7:10 pm

Andy – perhaps you’d like to explain what you mean by your slightly cryptic comment? I always thought that as the owner of a blog called ‘socialist unity’ and a member of a whole series of socialist groups, you were a bit of a fan of the October Revolution?

Or have you discovered it was a Bad Thing after a Papal Encyclical told you so?

#8 
Written By Ed Maltby on September 17th, 2010 @ 7:58 pm
Hugh

Ed, I think what he meant was that it’s rather more difficult to judge the long-term public utility of one’s (or anyone else’s) theories, beliefs, programs etc.

The corollary of which (implied, I think, in the original article) is that structures of thought (whatever department we want to put them in) should be criticised for their theoretical failings rather than what happens right now ‘because’ of them. Or, in other words (or this might be a different thought, I’m not sure), humility about our own certainty of whether our judgments and principles are right and wrong follows from a recognition of how chaotic history has been. I, for one, am not convinced by the astuteness of your story of the Enlightenment, tidy as it might be.

#9 
Written By Hugh on September 17th, 2010 @ 8:08 pm

Gosh Hugh, that all sounds dashedly clever. I do wish I had sufficient moral strength to not believe in anything, like what you do.

Because what you’re saying is a bit of a pants cop-out, really. I mean, all that I can make out is that you don’t think that ideas have an impact on the world around you; that it makes more sense to judge them on whether or not they are internally consistent, than it does to judge them against what those ideas do in the world. So why get out of bed in the morning, eh?

All sorts of nonsense is internally consistent, such as the Catholic faith. On purely theoretical grounds, it can’t be faulted. Sure, the Catholic Church might be responsible for the most awful crimes against humanity, but Hugh thinks it’s rude or immodest to judge doctrines by what happens ‘because’ of them in the real world. What can we know, after all?

It’s an abandonment of any kind of independent thought, reducing political thinking to clever-clever word games, pedantically poking holes in what someone says but never posing any kind of positive political project. It means an abandonment of boldness and intellectual rigour. After all, if you are being ‘humble’ about the rectitude of your own ideas, it doesn’t matter much if those ideas are bollocks.

“Oh, this might be a different thought, I’m not sure” – then why bother writing anything?

The most substantive thing you actually manage to say in your post (and it’s taken you right to the end of the comment to work up the gumption to say it) is to hint that maybe you’re not entirely convinced by what I say about the Enlightenment. Well, what do *you* think about the Enlightenment, clever-chops? Or presumably you hadn’t thought that far ahead, because what you positively think about a topic is much less important than your ability to have a go at all those benighted fools who try to use ideas to understand and change the world?

#10 
Written By Ed Maltby on September 18th, 2010 @ 12:10 pm
DavidR

Uganda’s HIV infection rate went down when the Ugandan government declared early on that fighting HIV/AIDS was crucial for the whole of society and adopted a non-stigmatisation approach. That was enhanced through the ABC campaign (Abstain, be faithful and condomise) that was launched particualry among schools and youth. But this was heavily challenged over the last 10 years or so especially by Catholic activists there, well supported from outside. The “C” was effectively dropped from the ABC campaign, and catholic priests told schools and young people that condoms don’t stop AIDS. Infection rates rose again. From a recent trip to Uganda my sense is that many people at the grassroots are now challenging the malign influence of Catholic dogma on this issue.

#11 
Written By DavidR on September 18th, 2010 @ 7:30 pm
Stefan

Thanks, Reuben, for this considered and balanced article.

#12 
Written By Stefan on September 19th, 2010 @ 2:14 am
rwillmsen

“as Brennan O’ Neil notes”

Do you mean Brendan O’Neill? One of a merry band of pranksters whose mission in life is to knock down each and every pillar of received opinion, regardless of its validity or importance in upholdng the edifice of progressive thought? Experience with that group of misanthropic timewasters tells me that he will have: a) noticed that the Pope is being criticised by all right-thinking people for his role in the spread of ignorance about sexual health protection and his past covering up of the rape and abuse of thousands of children b) decided by arguing against the consensus he can get some attention and waste everybody’s fucking time and energy and c) come up with a seemingly cogently-argued but actually entirely specious argument to do exactly that. ‘pedantically poking holes in what someone says but never posing any kind of positive political project’ is exactly what he is doing. Utter timewasters to be roundly ignored at each and every opportunity, lest previously sensible people wind up having pointless discussions such as this. Of course people who call on the Pope to resign are missing the point about what his role is; nevertheless that does not mean that people who are angry about the role that the church plays with regard to AIDS and child abuse are somehow mistaken.

#13 
Written By rwillmsen on September 19th, 2010 @ 10:12 am

Brap, Rwillsmen

#14 
Written By Ed Maltby on September 19th, 2010 @ 7:12 pm

Reuben – this comment:
“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.”

Was totally ridiculous.

No, they/we don’t believe that public figures should simply calculate the impact of their words on public utility – we just think the pope’s perception of right and wrong are themselves totally wrong. No one who thinks the pope’s policies are morally correct would advance criticism on public utility grounds. We think they are wrong on the grounds of morality, justice and equality and of course most people’s notions of morality are also informed by public utility (since, you know, what works for people and what ends up killing them is not inconsequential to morality).

You seem to presume that you can’t critique the pope’s warped politics on moral grounds – why not? If you think the pope has some sort of “right” to make moral pronouncements against condoms, then why doesn’t everyone else have the “right” to make moral pronouncements on the pope’s moral pronouncements? That makes no sense at all.

#15 
Written By S.G. on September 20th, 2010 @ 3:46 pm
Patrick Rolfe

A few comments on this article –

1. The pope, as the head of a powerful state, the un-removable head of a worldwide religion, and the controller of a vast array of wealth and resources, DOES have a moral responsibility to make statements that benefit public health, poverty eradication, human freedom, etc etc. The Pope is not merely an individual person – he is a political entity at the head of a hierarchy. He is a public official, and as such, he has moral responsibilities that individual people don’t have.

Ruben, do you really intend to argue that powerful heads of institutions can use their position to do whatever the hell they want? Because that what it sounds like.

#16 
Written By Patrick Rolfe on September 21st, 2010 @ 7:29 pm
LEONARD KING SR

TO POPE BENEDICT
FROM LEONARD KING SR AND FAMILY OF JOLIET ILL.
I AM WRITING THIS LETTER BECAUSE I FEEL THAT I AM BEING MISTREATED. AND I WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT I LOVE YOU VERY MUCH. I HAVE TRIED TO GIVE ALL I HAD .EVEN WITH THING THAT HAVE BEEN STOLEN FROM ME. I PRUCHASED A HOME IN YAKIMA WA LOCATION 424 SO 49TH AVE.
I FELL THAT HOUSE WITH RARE PAINTING AS WELL AS OTHER ARTIFACT THAT WHEN I LEFT I HAD SIGNED EVERYTHING OVER TO THE AMSBERG FAMILY AND ALSO PP. 1937 DC 1946
ALL I AM ASKING IS THAT I BE ABLE TO SIT WITH MENS OF GOD THAT WE MY REASON TOGETHER. THE BIBLE SAYS WHERE THERE ARE TWO OR THREE TOUCHING AND AGREEING
GOD IS IN THE MIST.I HAVE NEVER TURN DOWN ANYTHING BECAUSE IT WAS NEVER PUT IN MY HAND TO READ OR LOOK OVER. I HAVE NOT TURN DOWN ANY CARS THAT WAS PUT IN MY PATH. BECAUSE I ONCE TRIED TO DRIVE AWAY WITH TRUCK AND
ENDED UP I THE MENTAL HOSPITAL THINKING AND HOPPING IT WAS FOR ME. I LEFT ALL MY CARES AND EVERYTHING THAT OWNED I LEFT IN YAKIMA WA BECAUSE I WAS TRING TO PROTECT MY LITTLE GIRL. SO I WAS RUNNING FOR MY LIFE.
I JUST FOUND OUT THAT MY WIFE KNEW I WAS COVERED IN THE BLOOD FOUR YEARS LATER. IF I HAD KNOWNED THAT I WAS COVERED UNDER THE BLOOD I WOULD HAVE NEVER LEFT EVERYTHING THAT I OWNED. BUT I DID NOT KNOW THAT I WAS COVERED THE BLOOD. ALL I WANT IS TO BE TREATED WITH REPECT FOR ALL MY LOBOR NOT SO MUCH OF THE DISCOVERY.
BUT MY LABOR THAT I DID FOR THE WORK OF THE LORD.
I DON’T GO AROUND TALKING TO NO ONE ABOUT THE RARE FIND. MY LITTLE GIRL AND HER MOTHER SHOULD HAVE BEEN BLESS A LONG TIME AGO FOR ALL THEIR LABOR AND PAIN I
HAVE CAUSE THEM BECAUSE I DID NOT KNOW WHAT WAS GOING ON UNTIL GOD SHOWED ME. A MADE A LOT OF MISTAKES IN MY PASS AND I AM SO GLAD THAT JESUS DIED FOR ALL OUR SIN.
I AM SO SORRY FOR THE PAIN I HAVE CAUSE PEOPLES IN MY PASS. I WAS VERY ABUSED AS A CHILD AND NEVER KNEW TRUE LOVE TO I HAD MY OWN KIDS. I HAVE BEEN TRING TO BACK ALL THAT GOD HAVE PUT IN MY PATH,
I ALSO HAVE SPENT SO MUCH OF MY OWN MONEY TRING TO BRING IT TO CLOSE BUT IT JUST WANT CLOSE.
I WANT TO PACK UP ALL I HAVE AND TAKE IT TO THE CHRUCH AS A BLESSING AND NOT TO SELL. BUT RECIVE A BLESSING FOR ALL MY LOBOR. MY WIFE KNOWS WHAT IS GOING AND EVEN MY LITTLE GIRL BUT I AM STILL LOST TO WHAT IS GOING ON. I PRAY THAT SOME ONE WILL CALL ME TO A MEETING TO GET MY LITTLE GIRL BACK SHE HAVE BEEN THROUGH SO VERY MUCH. SHE IS TO YOUNG TO HAVE A BABY BUT NOW I AM LOOKING FORWARD TO A NEW GRAND.CHILD THAT TOOK ME SUPRISE
I HAVE ASK GOD TO FORGIVE ME OF ALL MY SIN.
AND I PRAY THAT YOU PRAY FOR ME AND MY FAMILY SAFETY.
I DON’T EVEN HAVE A DEBIT CARD BECAUSE THE BANK OF AMERICA HAVE MADE A LOTS OF MISTAKE ON OUR ACCOUNTS
EVERYTHING I DO I AM BLOCK BY RICH THROUGH THE MEDIA AS WELL AS THE NEWS. THEIR IS SOME ONE THAT I WANT TO BLESS AND HER IS CRAYSTAL AND HER MOTHERS NAME IS PAT
PAT IS MY SISTER AND SHE LOST TWO SONS HELP ME TO BLESS THEM. AM GOING TO PACK EVERYTHING THAT I HAVE AND TAKE IT TO CHRUCH. ALSO I WAS BEAT AS A CHILD FOR STEALING THAT IS WHY I CAN;T TAKE ANYTHING THAT IS NOT PUT IN MY HAND PRAY FOR MARILYN SHE IS A BLESSING AND EVRYONE GIVE HER FAVOR. AND I ALWAYS FEEL SHE IS BATTER OFF WITHUOT ME. BECAUSE I FEEL OS ASHAME BECAUSE THEY HAVE REPECT FOR MARILYN AND MY KIDS BUT NOT FOR ME AND THAT IS VERY SAD. BECUSE OF MY PASS.ALL BANKS HAVE TURN ME AWAY BUT NOT MY WIFE.I AM TRING NOT TO TOUCH MY WIFE BECAUSE I NEED TO KNOW IF WE ARE MIRRIED SO I SLEEP ON THE FLOOR PLEASE PRAY FOR ME.I LOVE YOU SO VERY MUCH.
AND I WILL BE PACKING UP WHAT I HAVE TO SEND TO YOU AND THE VATICAN. I AM NOT THAT SMART SO I MAY HAVE MADE SOME MISTAKE ALONG THE WAY PLEASE FOR GIVE ME. LOVE MR. NOBODY.

#17 
Written By LEONARD KING SR on November 17th, 2010 @ 2:58 am

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