Pope Benedict XVI commands respect and reverence from his flock of 135 million Catholics in Africa, and that showed during his recent visit to Cameroon and Angola.
In response, he delivered a message of compassion and heartfelt recognition that the continent suffers disproportionately from poverty, famine, financial upheaval and climate change.
But he did flub one matter.
When asked to comment about the role of condoms in Africa’s war on AIDS, Pope Benedict stated, again, this time even more explicitly than usual, his belief that they are not just unhelpful in assuaging the epidemic, but that they exacerbate the scourge.
AIDS, he said, can be licked by abstaining from sex and following “correct behavior.”
He said this on a continent where 20 million have already died from AIDS and even more than that are HIV positive.
Certainly condom distribution by itself is not an answer.
Other strategies are required such as education, helping women achieve control over their sex lives, delaying onset of sexual behavior, broadening distribution of antiretroviral therapies and so forth.
But condom distribution programs work. According to the WHO, properly used condoms reduce HIV transmission by 90%. And when Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni talked openly about “ABC” habits—abstain, be faithful, use condoms, infection rates fell in his country.
Conversely, public figures that ignore the facts or get them wrong endanger the lives of many.
Harvard scientists estimated last year for example that that the callous behavior of South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki has caused 330,000 avoidable deaths due to AIDS.
In denying the facts about condoms in AIDS prevention, Pope Benedict turned a cold shoulder to the world’s weakest. That’s the group he should be working hardest to defend.