I've been biting my figurative tongue for weeks now. I didn't want to write about Pope John Paul II’s death. I figured it was a topic already getting too much press. I, like most everyone else who cared at all, was a bit contemplative when Pope John Paul II passed. I certainly don't think he was the 'perfect pope', but all things considered I thought he was a halfway decent pontiff. Although he wasn’t my personal hero, I can appreciate why so many adored him. I can also understand why many would choose to dislike and disagree with him (and correspondingly many of the doctrines of the Catholic Church).
I’m catholic. I’m not a very good catholic. In fact I’m a really bad catholic. I use condoms. I openly accept gay/lesbian friends and family members in the community. I often question church dogma. I don’t go to mass. Even worse, on the rare occasions I do go to church I’m just as likely to attend protestant services. And this for the worst reason of all – I married one. But I am catholic. Like a lot of American Catholics being ‘catholic’ is more of a cultural identity than a belief system. And don’t bother trying to point out the inherent contradictions in that. I know, and it doesn’t matter. After years in catholic schools the only thing I learned is being catholic is all about living with contradictions.
It didn’t bother me so much when so many different bloggers wrote mild anti-catholic rhetoric. A little dissension among the ranks can be a healthy thing. Mostly they merely listed ‘crazy things I don’t like about the Roman Catholic Church’ rather than express any real insights into who John Paul II actually was. So what? Everyone is free to rant. What do you expect bloggers to know anyways? I was a little surprised when I heard some of the same foolish banter at work, but again I just let it go. It’s not like I normally feel especially moved to argue on behalf of the Catholic Church. But when I started reading the same unqualified punditry in the newspaper I became alarmed.
The common thread is always the same ridiculous synopsis in remembrance of Pope John Paul II: Pope goes to Africa, Condemns Condoms, Millions Die from AIDS
Jesus Christ! Was the pope actually trying to spread this disease? How could he be so irresponsible as to deny these people the only
hope they have?
Give me a break. Reading the papers you’d think the former pope invented AIDS. The pope never went to Africa to warn a diseased population about the evils of prophylactics. He had a different message – one that no one seems to remember. He preached two things: abstinence and monogamy. And as I listen to your collective groan as you respond to this seemingly naïve and overly simplistic agenda I invite you to actually think about it for a second.
Imagine you’re single and you’re at a party. Everyone is drinking and having a great time. There’s plenty of hot gals/guys looking to hook-up and you think you have a real shot at getting lucky. And, oh yeah, you know that around 60% of the people there have AIDS. That means if you do take someone home, chances are better than not you're exposing yourself to a deadly disease. So seriously, are you reaching for your condoms, or are you headed out the door?
Now imagine you live in Southern Africa. Around 30% of the adult population under 30 already has AIDS. In some communities the number is greater than 60%. Will you go to many parties looking to get lucky? You could use a condom. Condoms are 99% percent effective at preventing pregnancy. Not quite so effective in preventing the transmission of STDs (including AIDS) but chances are you won’t get pregnant. How many casual encounters would you survive before you end up a statistic yourself?
Pope John Paul's objections to condoms may have been rooted in unpractical catholic dogma, but the truth is condoms are not a solution to an epidemic. I certainly won’t try to defend the Catholic Church’s complete dismissal of condoms, but using them as a cure for AIDS is insane. The problem is severe, and the solution isn't so easy. In a population so heavily infected telling people condoms will make them safe is a lie. Condoms do help but they aren't perfect. You play the game enough and sooner or later you will
get screwed. You’re right if you think having casual sex without a condom is crazy. But seriously, any
non-monogamous sex against those odds is crazy.
The people of Africa don’t need a solution to get them through their next sexual encounter; they need a solution that offers some hope of an actual future. The message Pope John Paul II gave them was effectively giving them just such a plan. And it was a message he offered openly and sincerely- not heavily laced with ‘catholic’s only’ dogma. He really did care about the problem, and he laid out a real solution that didn’t compromise his principles. Abstinence was the point he hit hardest – don’t have sex until your ready for a family, and then only with one person who is exclusive to only you. Like that wouldn’t work. Apparently abstinence seems like a horrible fate to many of us young westerners, but you have to at least respect the fact that it was a standard he lived up to himself.
When asked about the use of condoms the former Pope directly answered that the Church’s position in that arena hadn’t changed. And that is all we seem to remember. Feel free to disagree. I certainly do. But at least put it in perspective. It’d be easy to argue his message was incomplete. But don’t indict John Paul II with having done harm. It wasn’t that he was campaigning for everyone to stop using condoms, he was asking them to stop having irresponsible sex. If you’re not having sex, condoms aren’t much of a topic.
In the end individuals either listened or they didn’t – but his message wasn’t so impractical. Feel free to view it all as over-puritanical and wrong if you like. The truth is you just can’t expect everyone to stop having sex. Still you have to recognize that many non-crazy and mostly non-Catholic Africans are successfully adopting this exact survival strategy. Either because of the pope or common sense, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is these people will be survivors. As an individual living in Africa (or anywhere): What would you do?
I could go on to point out similar lapses in thorough coverage of other real controversies involving Pope John Paul II (his ‘apology’ for WWII inaction for instance) but I really don’t have to. I just hate that the coverage, the positive and the negative, is all so shallow as to not represent the truth.