Is the Pope a Catholic? He’s certainly not a scientist…


I, like many who’ve written to me, am speechless with rage at the Pope’s first direct pronoucement on condoms. (Well, not quite speechless. I had a little vent about it in today’s Times.) To oppose condoms on dogmatic grounds is one thing. That’s the Pope’s job, if he considers it his job to defend Catholic dogma more vigorously than defending the life of young adults.

But the Pope didn’t oppose the use of condoms because Catholic dogma says it’s bad to have sex without making babies. He said we shouldn’t give out condoms in Africa because condom distribution actually makes the HIV epidemic worse. If he’s setting himself up as an epidemiologist, he’s got a bit of work to do. It’s true that in some cases, condom use is highest in communities where HIV is also high. But Rule Number 1 of epidemiology: correlation does not equal causation.

Think of all the miserable sinners who rush (back?) to the bosom of the Catholic Church at the end of a happily dissolute life, just in time for a celibate man in a dress to give extreme unction. In an instant, our sins are absolved, though the pleasure occasioned by all that babyless sex may stand rich in our memory. I haven’t run the numbers on death-bed conversions, but it seems likely that there is a strong correlation between becoming a Catholic and imminent death. By the Pope’s logic, Catholicism kills.

*UPDATE* : The Daily Mash clarifies what the Pope actually meant.
Thanks to Anita Fenton for the enlightening tip.

This post was published on 18/03/09 in Condomania, Ideology and HIV, Pisani's picks.

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  1. Comment by Pheasant, 18/03/09, 12:11:

    It is pretty unbelievable how people actually believe condoms increase the HIV problem. Also that he was allowed to just ramble on and on.

  2. Comment by kevin, 18/03/09, 05:17:



    poor damian thompson

    the pope not know that HIV is kiilling Catholic on own back.

  3. Comment by Roger, 18/03/09, 10:04:

    Another disgusting display of ignorance. When is the Church going to leave us alone and stop trying to regiment our sexuality?

    The last comment in Damian Thompson article about “African Promiscuity” also speaks volume about Western ignorance…

  4. Comment by Jason, 18/03/09, 11:29:

    Although it might be unpopular to say it, the Pope is right noting that passing out condoms is likely to make the HIV problem worse in the long run.

    If he is claiming that it will not prevent direct infection between sexual partners when they work correctly, then he is mistaken, but honestly, i’d be surprised if the Pope actually held that view. And for the record i’m a Protestant not a Catholic so have no love for the Pope in particular.

    I think he is right to suggest that ultimately distributing condoms will make the problem worse in the long run because the problem is not whether or not people use condoms when having sex. they don’t always work, they break, etc, so they will never be 100% effective.

    The real problem is the general promiscuity in Africa. Distributing condoms as an AIDS panacea does nothing to deal with the problem and the real long term solution is to deal with that underlying problem.

    Condoms might work as a stop gap to reduce rates of infection, but as a long term solution they are pretty much going to insure the problem continues to be endemic.

    Or so I would contend.

  5. Comment by antonio, 19/03/09, 01:21:

    I think it’s exactly the same discussion as with safety belts. On one hand it’s much safer with them, but it has the side-effect of people becoming less careful and driving faster. There have been studies on this effect.

    Still I think the net effect is positive and it’s best to have safety-belt/helmet/condoms. But it shouldn’t cause immediate rage. It all depends on data.

  6. Comment by CommiePinko, 19/03/09, 03:30:

    You know Jason, what’s sad is that, because of his poorly-informed or ideologically-immunized state of cognitive dissonance, the Pope either dispensed some glaringly ignorant public health information, or…we’re left to wonder. Is it too much to ask that someone with ~ 1 billion followers, who is perceived by many to be “God’s representative on earth”, would feel a keener responsibility to express themselves more clearly? Especially in matters of life, and death?

    Here’s an editorial from today’s WaPo entitled: “Condom Sense”.


  7. Comment by Paddy, 19/03/09, 04:16:

    Two more good links on this:

    And one for you, Jason: http://www.unaids.org/en/KnowledgeCentre/Resources/PressCentre/PressReleases/2009/20090318_ComprehensivePrevention.asp. Condoms are being promoted as part of the solution, not as a panacea. We can talk all we like about sexual promiscuity, but we’ll never put an end to it, in Africa or anywhere else. Reduce it a little, maybe. Equally, we’ll never get everyone to wear condoms, but it’s certainly possible to enable and persuade more people to wear them. And if we do both, it’s got to be better than doing either by itself.

  8. Comment by Roger, 19/03/09, 09:58:

    Jason, could you provide evidences of the higher level of promiscuity in Africa you are alluding to? Or some figures about the rate of condom breakage?

  9. Comment by Jason, 19/03/09, 10:00:

    Hi Paddy,

    Are you sure condoms are not promoted as a panacea to HIV in practice ? I meant in terms of the message being received not the one communicated.

    I agree you’ll never end sexual promiscuity everywhere, I am a realist.

    I don’t disagree with promoting the use of condoms to people, I was just making the point that the problem is sexual promiscuity not whether or not people wear condoms.

    And what happens when HIV picks up a trick for spreading with or without condom usage or the “next HIV” come along that picks up its transmission tricks from something like HPV, which can spread even with a condom ?

    The message of “use a condom to be safe” (yes I know technically “safer” but what do you think people hear ?) if something like that comes along will turn out to have been an incredible disaster.

    I always did offer my comments as a long term perspective.

  10. Comment by Jason, 19/03/09, 10:07:

    Hi CommiePinko,

    It is quite sad that it is unclear exactly what the pope said. Does anybody know where to get the actual text of what he said ? There is a response to comments at http://is.gd/o0SM which would seem to suggest the Pope was talking long term about the problem, and if that report is accurate then I completely agree with him on this.

    The solution is not “use a condom”, which even UN Aids agree with apparently.

    Can anybody really deny that if everybody took the Pope’s advice and “…[kept] to Church teaching on marriage, faithfulness and abstinence …” that the spread of HIV would stop tomorrow ?

    It is unrealistic to expect people will do that, but it would seem that the long term solution to the problem is based in following that advice. However unpopular it is to admit as much.

  11. Comment by Jason, 19/03/09, 10:10:

    Hi antonio,

    I agree with you with regard to the analogy to seat belts.

    Although I would note, on that analogy, surely the long term solution is to encourage safer driving. Technical solutions to the problem (like seat belts or condoms) work ok in the short terms but encourage more dangerous behavior in the long term because of the perceived increased safety.

  12. Comment by elizabeth, 20/03/09, 11:28:

    Hi there. Thanks for the interesting discussion. On the issue of exactly what the Pope said, it is this:
    “non si può risolvere il flagello con la distribuzione di preservativi: al contrario, il rischio è di aumentare il problema. La soluzione può trovarsi solo in un duplice impegno: il primo, una umanizzazione della sessualità, cioè un rinnovo spirituale e umano che porti con sé un nuovo modo di comportarsi l’uno con l’altro, e secondo, una vera amicizia anche e soprattutto per le persone sofferenti, la disponibilità, anche con sacrifici, con rinunce personali, ad essere con i sofferenti.”

    That’s from the Vatican website’s transcript of the interview on the Papal flight. You can find the rest of it at: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2009/march/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20090317_africa-interview_it.html. Interestingly, the Vatican has not issued the text in any other language.

  13. Comment by Paddy, 21/03/09, 01:31:


    Arguing against condoms because they’re less than 100% effective is like arguing against stopping smoking, getting vaccinated, having access to a doctor, not getting obese, or anything healthy that anyone can do. Seriously, nothing is 100% effective in this world; whether condoms are useful or not for this purpose can best be decided by looking at whether they’ve worked so far. As it happens, the most successful national interventions we’ve seen to date in reducing national HIV prevalence (Thailand & Uganda), included the use of condoms, particularly as regards sex workers and their clients. If it works, why stop it?

  14. Comment by Jason, 22/03/09, 10:06:

    Hi Paddy,

    I wasn’t actually saying don’t use condoms as part of a process of slowing the spread of the disease.

    I was just agreeing with the Pope that as a long term solution condoms are not an answer to the problem. UNAids even agrees with that.

    Condoms are not 100% effective, so they wont work as a solution to stopping the spread of HIV, they will function as a mechanism for slowing the spread of the disease via the particular transmission vector when they are used.

    And of course you can always find a prostitute willing to take extra money to take a little extra risk. Or so seems to be the case as I am not in the habit of procuring the services of prostitutes.

    I would contend that fundamentally the problem with HIV is a moral one that is based around irresponsibility. Condoms function as a technical mediation of that problem. But that fails to address the underlying issue.

  15. Comment by Jason, 22/03/09, 10:09:

    Thanks Elizabeth.

    Google seems to think it translates as

    You can not solve the scourge with the distribution of condoms on the contrary, the risk is to increase the problem. The solution can lie only in a double commitment: first, a humanization of sexuality, that is a human and spiritual renewal leading with them a new way to behave with one another, and second, a true friendship also and especially for people suffering, availability, even with sacrifices, with personal sacrifices, to be with the suffering

    Seems like he is speaking the truth there. This also, assuming the translation is reasonable etc, is not a condemnation of condoms as part of a solution, but a realistic take on the nature of the problem.

  16. Comment by Jason, 22/03/09, 10:11:

    Oh BTW, Google translate will work on the whole page as well.


  17. Comment by CommiePinko, 23/03/09, 01:52:

    Hopefully this hasn’t been posted yet:


  18. Comment by Jason, 23/03/09, 10:57:

    Why do they keep cutting off the Catholic and talking over her ? I don’t think she was being especially unreasonable.

  19. Comment by Paddy, 24/03/09, 04:03:

    “This also, assuming the translation is reasonable etc, is not a condemnation of condoms as part of a solution, but a realistic take on the nature of the problem.”

    Did we both read the same text? The Pope does nothing _but_ condemn condoms. The measures he calls for are all very well, but why bash condoms at the same time? Either he should say the truth – that condom provision is complementary to everything else he’s proposing – or stay silent. It really is that simple.

  20. Comment by Jason, 24/03/09, 10:27:

    Hi Paddy,

    Yes we did both read the same text. The thing is, the Pope is right on this. Long term condoms are going to make the problem worse not better. The problem is more fundamental than “wear a condom” and the problem of the spread of HIV will never be solved by the promotion of such.

    The problem is attitudes to sex and promiscuity in Africa (and other places) and these are what the Pope is calling for the reform of.

    I like the current Pope because he is not afraid to upset people when he wants to make a point and he has the courage of his convictions.

  21. Comment by Jason, 24/03/09, 10:49:

    http://is.gd/oMyQ Harry Jackson Jr, has an interesting take on the Pope’s comments about HIV and condoms

  22. Comment by Leah, 26/03/09, 03:42:

    One would have thought that with the end of the Bush term, this would be the era of common sense HIV prevention condom programs. Between the Pope and the drama about Alatech, the last remaining US manufacturer of condoms, it looks like we’re getting it from all sides.

    More information at the link.

  23. Comment by Tamas, 26/03/09, 07:02:

    The worst bit is not even the impact in countries that are already of high HIV levels, for the debate is in place, one more stupidity does not count that much. The real trouble is in the places that are the frontier of the HIV epidemic, places where it is only in early stages, where the focus of the public debate is not on HIV, it is just an embarrassment of a minor segment of the society. Easy then for the cowardly local politicians to pick up some excuses from one of the world’s de facto opinion leaders in religion and morality.

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