Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Carolyn Moynihan: Pope's blessing not a magic wand for Aids

Was there a more sensational headline in the Herald last week than the one announcing, "Pope may allow the use of condoms"?

Its sheer novelty eclipsed the combined antics of British politicians, the Iranian president and al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.

Pope Benedict has agreed that the morality of condom use in the case of a married couple where one is infected with Aids should be studied in depth, taking into account the scientific and technical facts. The outcome is far from certain, and even if the answer is affirmative, it will not be the magic wand bringing hope to millions that the story from the Independent makes it out to be.

Underlying the paper's spin is the assumption that the Church's opposition to condoms has exposed millions of its members in developing countries to Aids. Now the heartless Church -that is, the Pope -is being "forced" to change its tune.

To drive home this point the article includes a couple of fact files. One, leads off with the number of Catholics in the world - a scary 1.3 billion - and then gives HIV/Aids numbers for the world and its main regions. "Gosh," we are meant to think, "most of these must be Catholics. After all, there's a heck of a lot of them and they are the ones who are not allowed to use condoms."

The other list is more precise. It tells us: "42 per cent of the world's Catholics live in Latin America; 60 per cent of the world's HIV population lives in Africa, which is home to 137 million Catholics; African Catholic numbers are expected to double by 2025; Lesotho is 70 per cent Catholic and 33 per cent HIV positive; Brazil, the world's largest Catholic country, has 1.3 million Aids sufferers."

Pretty damning, isn't it, until you take a second look at this grab-bag of statistics and see how little it really tells us.

Let's start with Africa, the region which suffers most from Aids. The sub-continent may be home to 137 million Catholics, but they are still less than 20 per cent of the population. For their numbers to be significant in this context they would have to have a much higher rate of Aids than other groups. Lesotho is therefore chosen to illustrate.

Lesotho is a tiny country of 1.8 million people surrounded by South Africa and, as such, in the southern Aids belt described by a senior Aids analyst for the World Bank as "the absolute epicentre" of the global epidemic. It is true that Lesotho has one of the worst epidemics with around 29 per cent of the population infected, according to UNAIDS' 2004 medium estimate (the standard I use in this article). It is also true that most people in that country are Catholic.

This is tragic and a particular cause of concern for the wider Church, but one small country does not prove anything. Swaziland, about the same size as Lesotho and also enveloped by South Africa, has a rate of 38 per cent and only 5 per cent of its population is Catholic. In Botswana, another small country, the figures are similar to Swaziland's. South Africa, with an Aids rate of 21.5 has a Catholic population of only 6 per cent. But further north, in Uganda, where 43 per cent of the population is Catholic, the rate of infection is 4 per cent.

Given this broader pattern, if the number of Catholics in Africa "doubles" by 2025 and the number of other Africans does not, the result might be lower rather than higher Aids prevalence.

What about Brazil? According to the Independent, the country has 1.3 million Aids sufferers. The UNAIDS figure, however, is 660,000. It is still an alarming number and a special challenge for the Church given that 80 per cent of Brazil's 184 million people are Catholic. Even so, the Aids infection rate is 0.7 per cent. Remember, it's a big country still struggling with problems of development.

But the litmus test of the proposition "Catholic population = Aids" has to be the Philippines. There, Catholicism is lived to a degree hardly seen elsewhere in the world and people really do listen to the Pope. But it is precisely in this struggling but gutsy country of 86 million people that the equation falls down: 0.1 per cent of the population is infected.

So what difference could the present exercise at the Vatican make? As the liberal press never tires of telling us, large numbers of Catholics around the world do not listen to the Pope on matters of sexual morality.

This raises a pertinent question. If Catholics do not listen to the Pope when he says not to use contraception, will they suddenly obey him if he says they are morally obliged to use a condom if there is a risk of infecting their spouse with Aids?

The Pope's critics want us to believe that those benighted dark-skinned Catholics in Africa are so devout that if they have sex outside of marriage, dally with prostitutes or take a third wife, they will piously refrain from using condoms because the Great White Father told them not to. But if he tells them the opposite they will trudge 20 miles for a packet of condoms before they do any of those things.

Patronising, isn't it? And silly. The people suffering from Aids need better thinkers and advocates than those who are hung up about the Pope and Catholic sexual morality.

* Carolyn Moynihan is an Auckland writer.

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