The condoms on our minds

The Guardian, Tuesday Nov. 30, 2010.

by Emmanuel Badejo (Msgr.), Bishop of Oyo Diocese

The fear of moral responsibility for actions and choices made has haunted mankind from the beginning of time. Going by the Bible account, the first recorded encounter between man and God after creation simply describes man’s phobia for bearing that weight. As the story went, Adam the first man shifted that blame to Eve, the first woman, who in turn shifted it to the snake. Had the snake been able to speak, perhaps it would have followed their same strategy. Reading the story more intuitively, God was the intended culprit standing accused for the wrong choice of Adam and Eve, having created the snake which caused it all. So has been the story of man from the retort of Cain, “am I my brother’s keeper” to the thief accusing Jesus on the cross, “if you are the Son of God, save thyself and us…” Well, one of the purposes of true religion is to help man own up to his moral responsibilities so that he might be saved, and improve the world around him.

It is in this light that we must read many of the reactions to the recent interview granted by Pope Benedict XVI to a German journalist Peter Seeweld for the book, soon to be published, “Light of the World”. The Osservatore Romano, the Vatican official periodical, recently published excerpts from Chapter 10 of the book which deal with the issue of the use of condoms by male prostitutes and the scourge of AIDS. For clarity, to the interviewer’s charge: “It is madness to forbid a high risk population to use condoms”, the Pope replied, “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.”

These words came after the Pope extensively spoke on what the Church is doing to help victims of AIDS and on why all should fight against the banalization of sexuality. The interviewer then posed a direct question: “Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?” To this the Pope replied, “She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.” (Italics, mine)?     These words of the Pope have expectedly provoked mixed reactions. Remarkably, some have gone almost delirious claiming that finally the Pope has seen the light and changed long-standing Catholic Teaching which he expressed on his visit to Africa in 2009 that condoms can neither be a real nor a moral solution to the scourge of AIDS. While there has been some caution in some media to carefully read the words of the Pope, many others have simply gone with the wind even congratulating the Pope for having the courage to recant on a long standing error of the Church. On the local level, the Tribune of 28th November in its “Tribune Church on Sunday” column, rubbished the Church’s position on condom use, and went even further to declare that the Pope’s alleged volte-face must be taken as evidence that Catholic teaching on Papal infallibility over the years, has been nothing but a fluke. That piece was put together with scant attempt to check out what was actually said but is founded in the writer’s imagination. Is this a case of fluke journalism or fiction-writing?

Be that as it may, one can only pray and ask once again that journalists would pursue and work with the highest standards of their profession which are fairness, objective reporting, journalistic balance and respect for the reading public by sticking to the actual story. It would seem not so difficult to see from the words of the Pope above that he was not addressing the use of condoms as an acceptable way of contraception at all. The Pontiff was addressing the state of mind, the motivation or intention of the homosexuals who use them in their sexual activities in respect of their concern not to harm others while seeking their own pleasure. This is what the Pope said might be an opening to and an awakening of a moral sense that we ought not to harm others in the pursuit of our own selfish interest, in other words, there is a higher value than our individual interests.

As a matter of fact, according to Janet Smith, an expert to the Pontifical Council on the Family, “In the case of homosexual sexual activity, a condom does not act as a contraceptive; it is not possible for homosexuals to contracept since their sexual activity has no procreative power that can be thwarted”. Her views complement that of Fr. Fedderico Lombardi, director of the Vatican Press Office that the Pope does not reform or change the Church’s teaching, but reaffirms it, placing it in the perspective of the value and dignity of human sexuality as an expression of responsible love. That is a context in which homosexual love can hardly be placed.

All summed up I perceive in most of the discussion on the Pope and this issue a betrayal of how obsessed many of us have become with the uncanny desire to be able to evade responsibility for our actions. But although the Church has for a long time stood alone in the refusal to recognize condom use as a real solution to the spread of AIDS, there has actually been a convergence even outside church circles on what has been called the ABC theory, translated as Abstinence, Be Faithful and Condom as the ideal formula for combating the AIDS scourge. Very clearly from this formula the condom does not feature as the top choice in their order of solutions.

I see in the entire debate clear evidence of what the theory of knowledge refers to as selective perception whereby no matter what is said, people hear only what they desire to hear. Perhaps for an issue of such weighty moral importance as human sexuality, opinion leaders would do well to remove the condoms they wear on their minds so as to enjoy a balanced grasp of the issues at stake and correctly analyze them. This way, we refrain from citing dubious opinion polls from far-away lands to prove a point locally without distinguishing between territories and cultures. The condom then becomes a metaphor for our biases and prejudices. The Church has no police to compel anyone to follow her teachings but will surely not be harangued into obliging groups or individuals who root for a worldwide abrogation of moral discipline and responsibility for choices consciously made.

As for those who would rather see the Pope’s position as a turn-around-endorsement for condom use, Janet Smith’s analogy should suffice to clarify the point. “If someone was going to rob a bank and was determined to use a gun, it would better for that person to use a gun that had no bullets in it. It would reduce the likelihood of fatal injuries. But it is not the task of the Church to instruct potential bank robbers how to rob banks more safely and certainly not the task of the Church to support programmes of providing potential bank robbers with guns that could not use bullets. Nonetheless, the intent of a bank robber to rob a bank in a way that is safer for the employees and customers of the bank may indicate an element of moral responsibility that could be a step towards eventual understanding of the immorality of bank robbing”. What will save our world is, as they say, “conversion, not condoms”.
• Badejo is Bishop, Catholic Diocese of Oyo

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