Last week, something horrible happened.
On his first visit to Africa since becoming pontiff, Pope Benedict restated the Catholic Church's opposition to condoms as a means to combat the AIDS epidemic. The Pope says condoms will not solve the AIDS crisis, and what is needed is a change in attitudes towards sex.
Really? How insightful for a man who has allegedly taken a vow of celibacy. He actually said that condoms make the AIDS crisis worse.
I find the Pope's comments to be dangerously irresponsible at best and an endorsement of genocide at worst. When a continent, not a country but a continent, like Africa is facing what is truly an epidemic based on the number of people dying from AIDS, then any and all methods, particularly those that have been proven to safeguard against the disease, should be endorsed and approved by the Catholic Church.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the number of African Catholics has increased 30 percent in a decade to more than 130 million, served by 426 bishops and more than 27,000 priests. That is a sizable figure. In fact, there has been an explosion in the numbers to such an extent that in places like Nigeria, there are barely enough priests to serve the population.
Growth has been attributed to high birthrates and Irish missionaries' proselytizing in schools, promoting (guess what?) abstinence until marriage. The fact that birthrates are so high compared to the extent to which abstinence is proselytized speaks volumes about the disconnect between the Catholic Church and this particular population.
I am not suggesting that Africans are any more promiscuous or sex-driven than anyone else. I am stating that with the number of AIDS cases on the continent, even if you engage in sexual relations with a partner to whom you are married, there is an extremely high chance that you will contract the disease. I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but many people believe that because of the figures, Africans have to be contracting it in ways other than from just sex or illegal drug use. While I'm not sold on that, the thought crosses my mind when I see how far-reaching AIDS is in the community.
For example, sub-Saharan Africa is more heavily affected by HIV and AIDS than any other region of the world. An estimated 22 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2007 and approximately 1.9 million additional people were infected with HIV during that year. In just the past year, the AIDS epidemic in Africa has claimed the lives of an estimated 1.5 million people in this region. More than 11 million children have been orphaned by AIDS. And this is just sub-Saharan Africa.
As someone who teaches in the rural schools in South Africa, I am upfront and close to the AIDS crisis. In the school where I teach on the Eastern Cape, which is often regarded as the poorest region of the country of South Africa, many of our students are HIV-positive or have full-blown AIDS. Funerals are regular occurrences and many of them have been orphaned because they have lost two parents (usually married) to this disease.
Many of the children have it. Why? Because they get it from their parents or from each other. Like their dead parents, they listen to religious leaders, who tell them not to use condoms, so they don't.
These are children that I'm talking about, and I won't mention the number of teachers who die from AIDS-related illnesses. What I will say is that these children are learning habits from adults -- endorsed supposedly by the church and God -- that will kill them.
I do not believe that it is God's will for children or anyone for that matter to suffer needlessly, particularly when there is something that can be done about it.
Yes, we all know that abstinence is the best policy when it comes to not contracting the disease sexually; however, we also all know that abstinence is more than a notion. Perhaps someone who has not taken a vow of celibacy would be better able to understand that. The Catholic Church can barely keep some priests from keeping their hands off of children -- yet they think they can get people around the world world to keep their hands off of each other?
This is why Pope Benedict XVI's comments are dangerous. Being a slave to a religious doctrine that does not address the real needs of your congregation is insane and has deadly consequences. How ironic is it that he would make these comments on St. Patrick's Day? St. Patrick was a former slave who helped convert and spread Catholicism to more places on Earth than anyone else in the 5th century A.D. During the time that he lived, slavery was "justified" in the Bible. St. Patrick spoke out against it and is commonly referred to as the world's first abolitionist. Imagine what would have happened to him and the Catholic Church had he not rebelled against dogma that would insist that he was less than human and rejected his "new" religion?
In my heart of hearts, I am hoping that the world in general, and the Catholic Church specifically, will take a page from the experiences of St. Patrick and spread a new gospel (especially in places being ravaged by this disease: Africa, D.C., the Carolinas) -- use condoms and live.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of communications and media studies at Goucher College and editorial director for RushmoreDrive.com.
For even more of The N Word, check out regular commentary from Nsenga Burton on our news blog The CLog.