One of the pillars of being Catholic in this modern age (if I may borrow a theological concept from Islam) is the ability to display patience in the face of all sorts of slander against the Church, but after years of reading articles and comments online in which people propagated the myth that the Catholic Church is to blame for the spread of HIV in the developing world, I was prodded into action. The straw that broke the camel’s back on this occasion was a piece by Ben Goldacre, physician and best-selling author of the book Bad Science. Writing for The Guardian about the visit of Pope Benedict to London in 2010 he said: “This week the pope is in London. You will have your own views on the discrimination against women, the homophobia, and the international criminal conspiracy to cover up for mass child rape. My special interest is his role in the 2 million people who die of AIDS each year.”
That’s a lot of mudslinging, but what’s crystal clear is his belief that the Catholic Church is at least partly responsible for the spread of HIV/AIDS throughout the developing world. In this he is not alone. The Atlantic in 2013 referred to “Vatican City’s refusal to encourage condom use in the fight against HIV/AIDS” and a policy which “has had serious, long-lasting consequences across the global south — especially Africa.” My problem with these arguments is that they exhibit a fundamental misunderstanding not only of human nature, but of the religious demographics of sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the developing world.
According to the CIA’s World Factbook, Swaziland has the highest HIV infection rate in the world with over a quarter of its population suffering with the disease. Yet only one fifth of Swaziland’s population is Catholic. The vast majority of its population are Protestants.
Swaziland is not exceptional; most of sub-Saharan Africa is Protestant. Botswana is next on the list and is overwhelmingly so. Lesotho is third, with Catholics and Protestants evenly split. South Africa is fourth; only seven per cent of its population identifies as Catholic.
If the accusations are true – that the Pope can effect change in the sexual habits of sub-Saharan Africans – why are the countries with the highest infection rates not majority Catholic? How many Protestants do you know whose reverence for the Catholic Church is so great that they base their sexual habits on its teachings?
The first country on the list with a clear majority of Catholics among total Christians is Mozambique in eighth place, and even still, the Catholic population comprises a mere quarter of the total. The first country on the list that could be considered a Catholic country in the sense that Poland or Italy are is Equatorial Guinea, down in eleventh place.
Westerners have been chastising the Church for alleged influence on African sexual predilections for some time but familiarity with these accusations fails to tarnish their idiocy. Their argument goes something like this: The Pope – a religious leader in Rome – lectures people on what they can and cannot do in matters of sexual intercourse. Europeans (and other white people) are sophisticated enough to merely disregard the pontiff’s advice; anyone who contracts HIV in, say, Russia or Los Angeles has only themselves to blame. Africans, however – uneducated peasants that they are – simply cannot resist the Pope’s teachings, even when he’s not their religious leader.
Imagine the following scenario. A married taxi-driver in Kampala gets off a long shift. He goes to visit a prostitute. The prostitute suggests wearing a condom. Now this is the point where criticism of Catholic teaching regarding condoms gets strange. Assuming that the taxi-driver is Catholic (in Uganda he is more likely to be a Protestant), he is expected by anti-Catholics to say: ‘I’m sorry. I cannot use a condom. I am a Catholic and I cannot disobey the teachings of my Church.’ This poses a question. Why is the taxi-driver adhering so slavishly to this single rule while ignoring so many others? He is committing adultery, having sex out of wedlock and using a prostitute. It should go without saying that the Pope disapproves of all three.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s problem with HIV stems from other things. This is a part of the world where presidents believe showering after sex can reduce the risk of contracting the disease (Jacob Zuma, ex-President of South Africa) and where presidents accuse western leaders of ‘spreading gayism,’ calling gay rights ‘satanic’ (Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe). There exists a vast number of people who often don’t have access to condoms and are suspicious about their efficacy, men who tend to associate them with a homosexual lifestyle and others who believe that HIV can be washed away with water or, more disturbingly, cured by having sex with a virgin.
If the accusations leveled at the Church were true then surely we would see a markedly higher infection rate among African Catholics than Africans of other faiths. Yet this is not the case. In South America – an overwhelmingly Catholic continent – the country with the highest infection rate is the only one with a minority of Catholics: Guyana.
The Catholic Church has no doubt led someone somewhere sometime to refuse wearing a condom, in a philosophical sense ‘assisting’ in spreading the disease. But if the infected man listened as intently to the Pope on matters of abstinence and marital fidelity as intently as he is believed to listen to the Pope’s teachings on condoms then nobody would have the disease. We have a word for a person who knowingly infects someone with a deadly disease like HIV, and that word is sociopath. Ignorance should not be a defense. If someone you knew were to use prostitutes without condoms, thereby putting others at risk of contracting the disease, they would probably be persona non grata at your dinner parties. So why do we treat all Africans as victims and the Church as the cause of their suffering when most countries with Catholic majorities don’t have remotely similar experiences?
For its basic understanding of human biological impulses one might fairly describe the Church as naive, but one shouldn’t treat Africans like simpletons and in doing so engage in the racism of low expectations.
Derek Hopper is a native of Dublin and studied history at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. He lives in Bangkok, where he teaches English at the faculty of liberal arts, Thammasat University. Follow him on Twitter.