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One would think that the editors of such a prestigious scientific journal as The Lancet might be endowed with the sufficient lucidity not to interpret Benedict XVI’s comment on condoms in the most obtusely literal way. The Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine on sexual relationships is doubtless idealistic and difficult to live up to for many, but at least it has the merit of being clear-cut and well-known: fidelity within marriage or abstinence. As it happens, there is no better recipe than this for limiting dramatically the number of sexually-transmitted diseases – something that not even the most eminent scientists writing for The Lancet can deny.
Regardless of their positive or negative idiosyncrasies, popes are at least refreshingly free from the constraints of demagogic crowd-pleasing with an eye on re-election, an unfortunate and distasteful by-product of democracy. Al Gore was careful to postpone his “inconvenient truth” till after he’d retired from his political career, and it was his genial persistence in telling fellow citizens what they didn’t want to hear that led to Socrates’ democratically determined execution. As for the Pope’s mentor, historical records suggest that he got on people’s nerves to such an extent that he came in a very poor second to a notorious criminal during a popularity contest in Jerusalem, and was subsequently tortured and executed with the crowd’s approval. Benedict XVI clearly has no aspirations to mass appeal for its own sake; his duty, as he sees it, is to express his faith-based convictions, even if they happen not to fit in with the prevailing cultural or social climate – a climate that is notoriously allergic to any notion of sexual restraint, and is aptly symbolized by the giant condom that was fitted over the obelisk in Paris’ Place de la Concorde in 1993 (preferable though it was to the guillotine).
As it happens, the Pope was very obviously not stating that in each discrete instance of sexual intercourse, the wearing of a condom actually increases the probability of STD propagation. Clearly, he was attacking the attitude towards sexuality that is disseminated through “condom culture”: the notion that a lifestyle involving mindless promiscuity, and the demotion of other human beings to the status of disposable tools by means of which ephemeral sexual gratification is achieved, is perfectly acceptable as long as a latex membrane insulates the most intimate forms of contact during the proceedings. Leaving aside the moral consideration that using another human being merely as a means to an orgasm, whilst maintaining a physical barrier between oneself and the other person, is odious, this approach to sexual relations patently cannot lead in the long term to the eradication of STDs – quite the contrary. Juggling short-term desire for someone else’s body with the need to keep that body (not to mention the person to whom the body belongs) at arm’s length, as it were, can scarcely be regarded as a realistic formula for epidemiological success.
This evident analysis seems valid to dispassionate scientists who don’t instinctively reject every pronouncement that happens to emanate from the Roman Catholic Church. For instance, as reported by London’s The Times on March 27, 2009, Edward C. Green, director of the AIDS Prevention Center at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, said this week that “the best evidence we have supports the Pope’s comments”, a perspective that is shared by the molecular biologist Dr. Helen Epstein, author of The Invisible Cure, Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa, also quoted by The Times.
The Lancet’s editors seem conceptually to reduce fully-fledged sexual encounters to penetration (with a perfectly adjusted condom in place), ejaculation and withdrawal, conducted with clinical precision in prissily aseptic conditions. Sex is gloriously messy; the messier it is, the better it is. Good sex involves momentarily taking leave of self-conscious restraints, and in such circumstances the determination to avoid contact with bodily fluids is soon cast aside – or else it ends up ruining the whole experience. Either the lives of The Lancet’s editors are cursed with woefully mediocre, mechanical and unimaginative sex, or – let’s face it – they simply have it in for the Pope.
Moreover, it is patronizing – indeed, patronizing to an almost racist degree – towards Benedict XVI’s African audience to assume that they cannot understand the true import of his words, and to imagine that Africans are so moronically lustful and promiscuous that, upon hearing the Pope condemn the dissemination of condoms as a genuinely effective means of preventing AIDS in the long run, they will instantly jettison their boxes of freely-distributed prophylactics and continue cheerfully, indiscriminately and condomlessly to bonk their way through life. The distinguished doctors of The Lancet might kindly credit Africans with the intelligence to understand that it was the general approach to sexual relationships epitomized by systematic condom usage that was being questioned, and not the banal fact that in a given sexual encounter a condom will make infection less likely. Clearly, the less direct carnal contact between human beings there is, the lower the chances of STD contagion will be – there needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us this! The Vatican’s position on the proper context of sex may not be everyone’s cup of tea; for all the reader knows, it may not be mine, and for all I know, it may not be the reader’s – but that’s beside the point. As a recipe for avoiding the propagation of AIDS it is peerless. And at least faithfully monogamous couples can indulge in the full range of uninhibited sexual possibilities without elaborate precautions (and with a papal blessing – should they want it).
What is most unforgivably disingenuous and cowardly about The Lancet’s editors, however, is to focus their attack on Benedict XVI – a facile target – instead of tackling head-on the real and glaringly obvious cause of the catastrophic dissemination of STDs in Africa and elsewhere (starting with chic communities in California and New York, where AIDS first became a noteworthy illness, unlike malaria, because it affected affluent, stylish Americans), lest they alienate some of their politically correct, sexually liberated readers and patrons: reckless promiscuity. They can hardly blame the Pope for instigating that.
Published in an abridged form in The Catholic Herald
in April 2009
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