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Missing the point on the Pope

Atlantic blogger and soon-to-be New York Times columnist Ross Douthat was not happy at all that my colleague David Rothkopf put Pope Benedict on his list of the world’s biggest losers because of his comments on AIDS and condoms: There are many other NGOs working in Africa that proceed from different premises, and take a ...

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A woman shows condoms with a picture of Pope Benedict XVI and reading "I said No !" on March 25, 2009 in Paris. This condoms were released to mock Pope Benedict XVI after he rejected condoms as a weapon against AIDS during his African trip. AFP PHOTO BORIS HORVAT (Photo credit should read BORIS HORVAT/AFP/Getty Images)

Atlantic blogger and soon-to-be New York Times columnist Ross Douthat was not happy at all that my colleague David Rothkopf put Pope Benedict on his list of the world’s biggest losers because of his comments on AIDS and condoms:

There are many other NGOs working in Africa that proceed from different premises, and take a different attitude toward matters sexual as a result, and if David Rothkopf prefers their approach that’s perfectly understandable. But unless he’s willing to tell the Catholic Church that it should fold up its charitable operations in the developing world and go home, I’d prefer to be spared the lectures on how the Pope is responsible for “massive death and suffering” among populations for whom Catholic institutions have provided lifelines beyond counting over the years, just because he isn’t willing to to use his pulpit to preach the importance of playing it as safe as possible, health-wise, while you’re committing what the Church considers mortal sin.

Rothkopf is more than able to defend his own posts, but I think that Douthat is missing the real reason why the Pope’s comments upset so many people. As Bill Easterly pointed out, the first part of the Pope’s statement, that AIDS is “a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms,” is a perfectly legitimate statement. Condoms alone won’t solve anything. It’s his next clause, that the distribution of condoms “even aggravates the problem” which is more problematic.

Here’s more Easterly:

From the standpoint of the individual, this is obvious nonsense, you are much less likely to get AIDS if you use a condom. The reason that mass condom distribution has not worked is that far too many people don’t use the condoms. One among the many possible reasons that people don’t use condoms is that religious leaders like the Pope tell them not to, or they believe unscientific statements like the Pope’s that “condoms aggravate the problem.” So it is tragically circular for the Pope to condemn the condom campaigns for not working, when one reason they don’t work is that the Pope has previously condemned condoms.

So in response to Douthat, the Pope was not “proceeding from a different premise” than those who promote condom use, he was making a statement that could at the very least be interpreted as arguing against the fact that condoms use can prevent the transmission of AIDS. Until condom proponents start telling people that they’re obligated to have sex, the Pope’s defenders are on shaky ground when they say he’s just offering another approach.

But don’t take my word for it. Roseli Tardelli, a Brazilian AIDS activist who’s been educating people on these issues for over a decade, has a new piece on The Argument blog, about how the Pope’s words have set her work back years.

BORIS HORVAT/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @joshuakeating

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