Only a month after the death of his predecessor, the new Pope, Benedict
XVI, announced that he had launched the process which culminates in
Catholic sainthood. The Vatican normally moves at a glacial pace in
such things, so the unprecedented speed confirms what most people feel
about John Paul II — that he was an extraordinarily good chap.
However, before the faithful get too wound up, something has to be
tidied up: the little matter of whether Karol Wojtyla was, in fact, the
greatest mass murderer of the 20th century. If he was, canonisation
might not be such a good idea.
Here’s what the devil’s advocates have had to say.
Nicholas Kristof, of the New York Times, says that the Vatican’s ban on
condoms has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, making it one of “its
most tragic mistakes in the first two millennia of its history” (1).
The influential New Statesman, in London, ran a cover story shortly
after the Pope’s death claiming that he “probably contributed more to
the continental spread of the disease than the trucking industry and
prostitution combined” (2).
Rosemary Neill, of the Australian, in Sydney, opined that the
intransigent Vatican “will eventually be accused of crimes against
humanity” (3). Polly Toynbee, of the UK’s Guardian newspaper, who
clearly had something quite vile for breakfast that morning, compared
JP2 to Lenin: “they both put extreme ideology before human life and
happiness, at unimaginable human cost” (4). Even doctors chimed in. The
world’s leading medical journal, The Lancet, accused an ignorant and
rigid Pope of presenting “insuperable obstacles to the prevention of
I’m not aware of whether any of these writers have visited AIDS
hospices and embraced AIDS patients, as John Paul II did, or worked as
hard John Paul II did to get international funding for AIDS treatment.
By and large, they seem to be the same crowd who put the boot into
everything else he did. But they have made their claim and it deserves
a hearing. Does it stand up?
There’s no doubt that AIDS in Africa is terrifying. The latest survey
of AIDS prevalence in Swaziland, a tiny kingdom of 2 million people
surrounded by South Africa, has reached 42.6 per cent, the highest in
the world. And climbing. Three years ago, in 2002, it was 38.6 per
cent. “Swaziland will be wiped out,” said one AIDS activist
despairingly (6). Figures for other countries in southern Africa are
almost as grim.
According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS),
two-thirds of people with HIV/AIDS live in sub-Saharan Africa. At the
end of 2004, 25.4 million people there were infected, with about 3
million infected during the year. Life expectancy at birth has dropped
below 40 in nine countries: Botswana, Central African Republic,
Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In
Zimbabwe, life expectancy at birth was 52 years in 1990, and only 34 in
Awful. Unbelievably, heart-rendingly awful.
But there is something absurdly medieval about making the Pope a
scapegoat, as if the clouds would break and the sun shine if we thrust
enough pins through a JP2 voodoo doll. Pinning the blame for the
tragedy of African AIDS on one man is one of those ideas that are, in
the words of George Orwell, “so stupid that only intellectuals could
The role of Catholicism
Two such ideas run through all these criticisms. The first is basically
this: African Catholics 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. Ms Toynbee darkly invokes “the Vatican’s deeper power…
its personal authority over 1.3 billion worshippers, which is strongest
over the poorest, most helpless devotees.”
But she can’t have it both ways: these benighted dark-skinned Catholics
can’t be both too goody-two-shoes to use condoms and too wicked to
resist temptation. Journalist Brendan O’Neill — who describes himself
as an ex-Catholic who has jettisoned Catholic teaching on sexual
morality — sums up this patronising argument in the on-line journal
Spiked: “The only reason you could believe the fantastically simplistic
idea that Vatican edict = AIDS in Africa is if you consider Africans to
be little more than automatons… who do as they are told” (8).
Superimposing maps of prevalence of AIDS on prevalence of Catholicism
is enough to sink the link between the Catholic Church and AIDS. In the
hospice which is Swaziland nowadays, only about 5 per cent of the
population is Catholic. In Botswana, where 37 per cent of the adult
population is HIV infected, only 4 per cent of the population is
Catholic. In South Africa, 22 per cent of the population is HIV
infected, and only 6 per cent is Catholic. But in Uganda, with 43 per
cent of the population Catholic, the proportion of HIV infected adults
is 4 per cent (9).
In fact, without the Catholic Church the situation might be much worse.
The AIDS disaster in Africa weighed heavily on the Pope. Ten years ago
he appealed to “the world’s scientists and political leaders, moved by
the love and respect due to every human person, to use every means
available in order to put an end to this scourge” (10). And Catholics
About 27 per cent of health care for HIV/AIDS victims is provided by
Church organisations and Catholic NGOs, as even The Lancet has
acknowledged (11). They form a vast network of clinics which reach the
poorest, most remote and most neglected people in Africa.
These statistics suggest that the true story may be quite the opposite
to the tune sung by the media: that Catholic observance may, in fact,
be the best prophylactic.
How effective are condoms anyway?
The second assumption is that condoms are essential for preventing AIDS
in Africa. In the words of researchers at the London School of Hygiene
and Tropical Medicine, “The condom is a life-saving device: it is
highly effective in preventing HIV transmission if used correctly and
consistently, and is the best current method of HIV prevention for
those who are sexually active and at risk” (12).
However, notice that this dogma is limited by two significant
qualifications: “if used correctly and consistently”. How often can we
expect this to happen in southern Africa? If the experts haven’t been
able to end AIDS in San Francisco and Sydney by promoting condoms, what
makes them think that they will succeed in Africa?
Amazingly, despite the dogmatic insistence that distributing condoms is
the only way to stop AIDS in its tracks, there are very few studies to
prove it. An article in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization
last year admitted that very little research has been done on the
impact of condom-promotion program on the actual incidence of HIV
Furthermore, even if condoms are “efficacious” — that is, they don’t
break and don’t leak — Murphy’s Law says that they will often fail.
According to Family Health International, an American group which
supports reproductive health initiatives and vigorously promotes
condoms, “condoms have to be used correctly and consistently to work”;
“correct use is more complicated than it may seem because there are
lots of ways to get it wrong”; and “some users will have difficulty
using condoms successfully and will experience more than their share of
In the chaotic social environment of many African countries, where
poverty is endemic, women are regularly abused and polygamy is
widespread, men are unlikely to use condoms consistently. As President
Museveni of Uganda has observed, “In countries like ours, where a
mother often has to walk 20 miles to get an aspirin for her sick child
or five miles to get any water at all, the question of getting a
constant supply of condoms may never be resolved” (15).
A recent study of condom use in the developing world in the journal
Studies in Family Planning summed up the situation with these damning
words: “no clear examples have emerged yet of a country that has turned
back a generalised epidemic primarily by means of condom promotion”
(16). This is most clearly seen in southern Africa. High HIV
rates have continued despite high rates of condom use. In Botswana,
says Professor Norman Hearst, of the University of California at San
Francisco, condom sales rose from one million in 1993 to 3 million in
2001 while HIV prevalence amongst urban pregnant women rose from 27 per
cent to 45 percent. In Cameroon condom sales rose from 6 million to 15
million while HIV prevalence rose from 3 per cent to 9 per cent.
The example of Uganda
In fact, the history of AIDS in Uganda supports the Church’s belief
that abstinence and fidelity within marriage are actually the best ways
to fight AIDS. In 1991, the infection rate in Uganda was 21 per cent.
Now, after years of a simple, low-cost program called ABC, it has
dropped to about 6 per cent.
ABC stands for Abstain, Be faithful, or use Condoms if A and B are not
practiced. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni preaches the ABC of AIDS
with the fervour of an evangelist. “I am not in favour of condoms in
primary and even secondary schools… Let condoms be a last resort,” he
said recently at an international AIDS conference in his capital,
Kampala. “I have grown-up children and my policy was to frighten them
out of undisciplined sex. I started talking to them from the age of 13,
telling them to concentrate on their studies, that the time would come
for sex” (17).
Ms Toynbee contended in her diatribe in the Guardian that “abstinence
and celibacy are not the human condition”. But Museveni — no innocent
about the human condition — thinks that they are. “We made it our
highest priority to convince our people to return to their traditional
values of chastity and faithfulness or, failing that, to use condoms,”
he told American pharmaceutical executives a couple of years ago. “The
alternative was decimation” (18).
Behind the campaign
The campaign to blacken the name of John Paul II with African deaths is
so blazingly and bewilderingly brainless that it amounts to conclusive
proof of Orwell’s maxim. What could possibly be behind it?
There is a political answer. A slick campaign by disgruntled Catholics
to discredit the Pope and the traditional teachings of their Church has
been operational for several years. A pro-abortion group called
Catholics for a Free Choice (CFC) launched an international PR drive in
December 2001 to promote their view that “good Catholics use condoms”.
Advertisements in the US, Mexico, the Philippines, South Africa, Kenya,
Chile and Zimbabwe marked “the first phase of an effort to change the
Vatican’s policy and challenge its aggressive lobbying against
availability and access to condoms in areas of the world most at
risk” (19). Subsequent media coverage, at least in the UK, has
reflected the major themes of CFC’s ideology.
But on a deeper level, Catholic beliefs about sexuality clash with what
John Paul II called a “pathology of the spirit”. As an example of this,
take Polly Toynbee’s claim that “contraception is women’s true
saviour”. The Pope looked to a different saviour. He knew that
technology cannot repair the wounded human condition. It cannot inject
self-restraint; it cannot infuse respect for others; it cannot
manufacture a sense of responsibility. The only lasting salvation comes
not from a pill or a latex tube but from a conversion of heart. A
technical patch will leave Africa’s acute problems of gender
inequality, poverty, low education and social disruption unsolved. And
without fixing these, the AIDS problem is sure to get worse.
But clearly a scapegoat for AIDS in Africa fulfils a primal need for a
simple solution in the face of calamity. I have an idea which will fix
While British journalists are busy fulminating about appalling health
care in Africa, the British government is colluding in making it worse.
According to a recent issue of The Lancet, sub-Saharan health personnel
are flocking to the UK, leaving their own countries’ health care in a
shocking state (20). An estimated 60 per cent of doctors trained in
Ghana in the 1980s, for instance, have left the country. Initiatives to
tackle AIDS, such as the World Health Organisation’s goal of providing
lifelong anti-retroviral treatment, are being thwarted by a shortage of
doctors. Unless doctors and nurses stay at home instead of chasing
better salaries in the UK, many, many more HIV infected people will
One person can put a stop to this scandal: the British Prime Minister.
Perhaps if Polly Toynbee sticks pins into a Tony Blair voodoo doll, the
whole problem will go away. Silly? OK. But it makes a lot more sense
than sticking them in the late Pope.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.
1 Nicholas D. Kristof. “The Pope and AIDS”. New York Times. 8 May 2005.
2 Michela Wong. “Blood of innocents on his hands”. New Stateman. 11 April 2005.
3 Rosemary Neill. “A Catholic culture of death”. Australian. 7 May 2005
4 Polly Toynbee. “Not in my name”. Guardian. 8 April 2005.
5 “The Pope’s grievous errors”. The Lancet. 12 March 2005.
6 “Devastating setback in Africa.” Globe and Mail (Toronto). 24 May 2005.
7 UNAIDS. “AIDS epidemic update 2004.”
8 Brendan O’Neill. “Did the Pope spread AIDS in Africa?” Spiked. 8 April 2005.
9 World Health Organization, Epidemiological Fact Sheets and The Hierarchy
of the Catholic Church
10 Ecclesia in Africa. 14 September 1995.
11 Javier Cardinal Lozano Barragán .“Message for World AIDS Day.” 1 December 2004
“The Pope’s grievous errors”. The Lancet. 12 March 2005.
12 Anna Foss, Peter Vickerman, Charlotte Watts. “The Ban That Kills”. Conscience. Spring 2005.
13 King K. Holmes, Ruth Levine, Marcia Weaver. “Effectiveness of
condoms in preventing sexually transmitted infections”. Bulletin of the
World Health Organization, June 2004, 82 (6).
14 “The Latex Condom: Recent Advances, Future Direction”. Family Health International
15 Cited in Norman Hearst and Sanny Chen. “Condom Promotion for
AIDS Prevention in the Developing World: Is It Working?”. Studies in
Family Planning. March 2004.
16 Norman Hearst and Sanny Chen. “Condom Promotion for AIDS
Prevention in the Developing World: Is It Working?”. Studies in Family
Planning. March 2004.
17 "Museveni Opposes Condoms in Schools”, AllAfrica.com, 30 November 2004.
18 Cited in Joseph Loconte, “The White House Initiative to Combat
AIDS: Learning from Uganda”, Heritage Foundation, Executive Summary
#1692, 30 September 2003.
20 “Loss of health professionals from sub-Saharan Africa: the pivotal role of the UK”. The Lancet. 28 May 2005.