The myth of papal culpability in the spread of HIV

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 lack of screening for sexually transmitted infections and 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 have no idea how to get tested for syphilis. Men are suspicious about the efficiency of condoms, 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.

(Image source)

Moral authority

Happy Easter, everyone. On Maundy Thursday, Pope Francis pissed off a lot of conservatives on the internet by performing the tradition of foot washing on Muslim refugees only days after jihadis killed a lot of people in Brussels. It might not be readily apparent, but conservatives on the internet were, as usual, being strategically retarded.

Something bad happened in Pakistan early on Easter Sunday, which fit into the idea of this post perfectly enough to get me to actually write it. Another Islamic terrorist attack happened, this time targeting Christians who were celebrating the holiday in Pakistan, resulting in the death of 67 people.

So, the time makes it clear that while Christianity responds responds to violence with peace, and Islam responds to peace with violence. The contradictions are piling up. Conservatives condemning the pope are making a mistake that is the complement of the mistake made by moderate Muslims who refuse to take a meaningful stand against terrorism: they underestimate the importance of moral authority. The timing was so perfect that a conspiracy theorist might guess that someone is trying to make Islam look terrible.

Is Christianity the religion of love and sacrifice? Because Muslims say the same thing about their religion. But talk is cheap, and people believe what they see.

The disjunction in optics continues to become more and more skewed in this direction, and that can only be a good thing. Islam is a bad system of ideas, and bad systems of ideas need to lose moral authority.

Christians in the Closet


Ace points us to this Rod Dreher account of his interview with a “deeply closeted” Christian professor at an “elite law school.” It’s long, but worth it, if you like that feeling of wanting to punch someone in the mouth.

“The sad thing,” he said, “is that the old ways of aspiring to truth, seeing all knowledge as part of learning about the nature of reality, they don’t hold. It’s all about power. They’ve got cultural power, and think they should use it for good, but their idea of good is not anchored in anything. They’ve got a lot of power in courts and in politics and in education. Their job is to challenge people to think critically, but thinking critically means thinking like them. They really do think that they know so much more than anybody did before, and there is no point in listening to anybody else, because they have all the answers, and believe that they are good.”

The rest might make one more and more depressed, the farther one gets into it: coming attacks on Christian schools, purging of professional organizations, removal of opportunities for Christians in the corporate world, etc. There are, naturally, references to The Benedict Option.

I believe Dreher and others are overlooking some key and unique cultural points about the United States. First, there are at least 200 million private firearms in the US, many if not most of them in the hands of cultural conservatives. Second, most “elites” can’t operate a gun, or even hold one in their hands without urinating in their pants suits. Third, the national government (“Feds”) hasn’t quite seized complete control of every aspect of life from the states.

Our good and faithful elite Christian law professor paints a picture of American Christians gradually giving in on all points, retreating from politics and the courts, and, especially, not getting fighting mad. Probably, he’s never been to a Knights of Columbus meeting.


Here’s my alternative scenario of the future: Certain elements in the  “red states” resist the liberal fascisiti. I think we now know that this isn’t going to be the Governors, considering the simpering performance of Pence and Hutchison, but some conservative legislative majorities would probably risk being boycotted by the NCAA in order to make a statement. More pressure, financial and legal, is brought to bear from DC and the Gay Corporate Mafia. Decent people from around the country rally ’round the besieged state(s). Some even move there, or at least camp out with rifles…and then, magically, an Enclave of Sanity independent of the Blue State sewers will be carved out of Flyover Country, the gays will go back to sodomizing each other in New York and Hollywood and everyone will live happily ever after…

Yeah, I’m not buying it, either.

I guess all I’m sure of is that America ain’t Rome under Nero, American progressives don’t have the moral certainty nor the backbone to actually kill American Christians, and American Christians aren’t as a body going to hide in the closet from sodomites and their “allies.”

The men who lie with men, the women who lie with women, the men who think they’re women, the ones who want to sodomize animals and children, and their elite enablers: Are threats of boycotts and Twitter hate campaigns and not getting hired at UCLA really going to cause American Christians to pretend to approve of this? To turn their faces away and pretend not to notice?

If so, it really is the End, and I’ll shut up and go in the closet and watch the show.

And sharpen my sword.

The singularity should put the fear of God in you

I’ve been having weird dreams lately. Part of my dream last night involved the singularity and a word called “ultrapunishment.” Needless to say, it was more of a nightmare.

It was pretty abstract, but the jist of the dream was that the “Mariani family secrets” were stolen by a fellow in his pre-singularity mortal life, and an apparently Mariani-related woman who looked like Camille Paglia (who is actually pretty cool) was now a powerful posthuman being who had the power to torture the thief’s consciousness.

There are no Mariani family secrets, and nobdy knows what the singularity holds for us  a fact that is baked right into the etymology of the word. Maybe perfect moral enlightenment will come with merging with a superintelligence. Maybe they will inherit their human pettiness, or maybe such pettiness will magnified yet. The point is that even a chance of the extreme disutility scenario of being punished forever is worthy of consideration.

Even someone who is originally a dick to you could be a vengeful post-human godmaybe it’s unlikely, but it’s possible. So, it’s in your interest to follow the teachings of Jesus and love your worst enemy. Any utility lost from self-denial for the good of another in this mortal life is inconsequential compared to a potential eternal punishment or reward.

This is all textbook example of imperfect contrition, where someone behaves morally out of something such as fear of punishment rather than the love of God and his laws. So my advice is to try to show charity and kindness even to the least deserving assholes on the planet, since you don’t know who is going to be in a privileged position of processing power. Maybe it’s the best reason, but if you believe in the singularity, you might as well follow God’s greatest commandments.

For reasons that should now be obvious, I don’t view the singularity as a necessarily good thing. As Zager and Evans said, “If God’s a-coming, he oughta make it by then.”

For the greater good — mine.

The rise of modernity has brought with it a moral shift from the universal laws of good and evil to the taste-based judgment of individuals. Our world grows ever more dizzying with the complexity of the threads of modern contingency, and individuals feel ever more alienated from the happenings around them. The plight of a neighbor is no longer as present in mind, since actions are more divorced from knowable results and meaning. For better or worse, the low-level functions of human beings will naturally lead down the easy path of enjoyment and aversion to non-enjoyment, outside of a moral system dictating that there is a correct way to behave. Of course, people still have ideas of  right and wrong. If you ask any given person living in a coastal urban area about what is a good thing for a person to do in life, the results won’t be that startling. Much like the Simpsons after season 10, the concept of “doing the right thing” has been quietly replaced by an impostor with the same name and appearance, aping the mannerisms of the original with middling success. Helping others will probably come out as part of our urban sophisticate’s answer, and everything still seems pretty normal.

When examined, this answer leads to to this conclusion: being a “good person” is a desirable trait because it feels good. Things are getting a little odd in this world of morals – but they’re about to get a whole lot stranger. We are told that being a happy person is the moral imperative. Follow your dreams! Find true love! Have a fulfilling career! See the world! This is definitely an incredible deal — these are all gratifying things that you already wanted to do, and it gives you the added bonus of making a good person. Of course, her moral prescriptions for living the life of a good person don’t even require thinking about right and wrong, meaning you don’t need a moral system to guide you to such behavior. The less easy truth is that while such things are certainly not bad things to want, they aren’t the final boss of moral goodness, either. In the mind of people like our friend, who is actually an intelligent and kind hypothetical person, the moral imperative to do what is objectively right, whether we would otherwise like to or not, has been replaced by the wholly redundant moral imperative to stimulate the enjoyment-seeking and novelty-seeking firmware that is our animal nature.

This modern doctrine’s Achilles’ heel made manifest is the fact that a system of right and wrong based on the feelings of people necessarily inherits the pride, prejudice, and desire for self-gratification that are inherent to the feelings of people. Even assuming the moral conclusions drawn from this relative system are the same as an objective one, the execution is different. As soon an opportunity arises demanding the right thing to be done, a moral relativist will, by the rules inherent to such a system, falter as soon as his egotism or prejudice are challenged. Of course, moral objectivists are prone to the very same human frailty, but not because of the very rules of their moral system. If we are to believe that we ourselves are moral lawgivers, then we are just self-canonized saints in the Church of Me. All experiences start and end with the individual, and absent of a meaning beyond our limits, the unexperienced experience of other beings is beyond our limits. We are the alpha and the omega of our own existence, bounded in a nutshell and counting ourselves kings of infinite space.