A long last, a Catholic Pope has recommended the use of condoms for those trying to avoid acquiring HIV/AIDS. The remarks by Pope Benedict XVI, that condoms are justified in some cases to help stop the spread of AIDs, are a welcome break with the longstanding papal ban on condom use. While many in the U.S. consider the Catholic ban on condoms to be an empty rule, openly disregarded, in Africa devout Catholics take the ban seriously and often refuse to use condoms even in situations when condoms are the only means of protections against sexually-transmitted diseases.
In Uganda, for instance, the papal ban on condoms is one factor working against “safe sex” practices, forcing some campaigners against HIV/AIDS to promote “abstinence” instead.
Pope Benedict’s climb down from total repudiation of condoms is only partial. In a convoluted formulation, the Pope recommended that condoms could be used in, say, the rare circumstance where someone sought to purchase sexual services from a man. In Africa, such occurences are relatively rare. In the main, sexual relations between consenting adults is where condom use could help limit the spread of HIV/AIDS. The Pope continues to claim that condom use between husband and wife, and boyfriend and girlfriend, is still banned.
The very twisted logic employed by the Pope could draw attention to the social construction of the ban itself, which might help devout African Catholics to adopt more practical methods of protecting themselves against sexually-transmitted diseases. The ban really gained attention only in 1968 as part of a wider attack by the Catholic Church on then-new methods of birth control. Benedict’s concession on condoms, however slight, may leave space for public-health campaigners to promote condoms as a protection against AIDS for anyone who feels especially at risk. After all, if the Pope can “adjust” the ban to permit use of condoms when gay sex is involved, perhaps Africans will conclude that the entire ban is a species of social policy, and not religious practice. As social policy, the ban on condoms is outmoded, indeed cruel, for many African spouses need the protection of a condom to even insure safe sex with their own regular partner whom they know may have additional ones.
Pope Benedict’s comments, posted online in the Vatican’s official newspaper, are a reminder of the dubious influences of European religion on African society. Worse, the ban on condoms — however partial — is a reminder of the destructive forces still being unleashed by foreigners distant from African lands. HIV/AIDS remains a terrifying scourge in many parts of Africa. That even a single European religious leader insists on an irrational social policy that conclusively harms ordinary Africans stands as a chilling echo that the long reach of cultural condemnation continues to distort African culture. As my old friend, the great trumpet player from South Africa, Hugh Masakela, once reminded me in Ghana (where he and his wife also call home), “Every Sunday, every African attending Church loses a bit of his soul.”
While the contributions of Christianity in Africa are undeniable, and while even my own wife’s Catholic upbringing in Igboland was not without its merits, the balance of effects cannot be considered an unalloyed positive. At the very least, at this late stage in the history of the religious imperialism imposed on Africans, cannot at least the leaders of the Western-based permutations desist from disrupting the social evolution of local peoples? Is it not enough that the children of the religious imperialists of the past century — those very Africans educated in the houses of religious Westerners and now themselves religious leaders in their own societies — is it not enough that these evangelical Africans espouse forms of religious practice at odds with social sanity and individual preservation? Must also the supposedly “civilized” Western religious leaders construct traps for the supposedly “uneducated” ordinary Africans who still suffer the stigma internationally from the stubborn belief that the Africans lack of “sophistication” raises the risks of acquiring AIDS in the first place.