Sunday, 12 September 2010

The Pope's visit and the case for a secular world

From Thursday, the people of Britain will be - ahem - "graced" with the presence of Joseph Ratzinger. Or, Pope Benedfict XVI, if you prefer. Needless to say, and for a broad variety of reasons, a number of people aren't too happy with this.

The big reason is the child abuse scandal. The Church, and the present pontiff, have a case to answer on their complicity in and cover-up of sexual abuse by Catholic priests across the globe.

Johann Hari, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others have made the case several times for criminal charges to be brought against him. I weighed in on the debate here, here, and here. I remain convinced of the solid case for his arrest.

The Pope has his apologists, of course. But all they can offer is "but what about" obfuscation and ill-conceived accusations of "religious hatred." This is a tactic that has also been employed by the Church, and it is at best callous and insincere. If Ratzinger his innocent, then the proof should be presented openly in court. If the Church was a secular institution, there would be no question of that point.

Another argument against the Pope's visit is the cost to the taxpayer, currently estimated at £10-12 million. The cost of policing the trip is an extra £1.5m on top of that.  More than three quarters of the public are against forking this out, many on the grounds that he is a religious figure.

It could be argued that, as a state visit, such funding is a wholly expected cost. But then you won't catch Nicholas Sarkozy or Barack Obama travelling to Glasgow to deliver open air mass.

However, amidst these more common objections, it was this point from Ben Goldacre that caught my eye today;
In May 2005, shortly after taking office, the pope made his first pronouncement on Aids, and he took the opportunity to come out against condoms. He was addressing bishops from: South Africa, where somebody dies of Aids every 2 minutes; Botswana, where 23.9% of adults between 15 and 49 are HIV positive; Swaziland, where 26.1% of adults have HIV; Namibia (a trifling 15%); and Lesotho, 23%.

This is ongoing. In March 2009, on his flight to Cameroon (where 540,000 people have HIV), Pope Benedict XVI explained that Aids is a tragedy “that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems.” In May 2009, the Congolese Bishops’ Conference made a joyful announcement: "in all truth, the pope's message which we received with joy has confirmed us in our fight against HIV/AIDS. We say no to condoms!"

This is not a remote problem. The pope’s stance has been supported, in the past year alone, by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, and Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster. “It is quite ridiculous to go on about AIDS in Africa and condoms, and the Catholic Church,” says O’Connor. “I talk to priests who say, ‘My diocese is flooded with condoms and there is more AIDS because of them.’”

Some have been more imaginative in their quest to spread the message against condoms. In 2007, Archbishop Francisco Chimoio of Mozambique announced that European condom manufacturers are deliberately infecting condoms with HIV to spread AIDS in Africa. Out of every 8 people in Mozambique, one has HIV.

It was cardinal Alfonso L√≥pez Trujillo of Colombia who most famously claimed that the HIV virus can pass through tiny holes in the rubber of condoms. Again, he was not alone. ‘The condom is a cork,’ said Bishop Demetrio Fernandez of Spain, ‘and not always effective.’

In 2005 Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, explained that scientific research has never proven that condoms ‘immunise against infection’. He’s right, they don’t. They stop the virus which kills you from being transmitted during sex. Which is very, very useful of them.

How effective are condoms? It’s wise not to overstate your case. The current systematic review of the literature on this question published by Cochrane found 14 observational studies (because it’s unethical to do a randomised trial where you actively stop people using condoms, since you know that they work, but just want to find out how well they work).

These studies generally looked at HIV transmission in stable couples where only one partner has HIV. Many of them looked at transfusion patients and haemophiliacs. Overall, rates of HIV infection were 80% lower in the partners who reported always using a condom, compared to those who said they never did. 80% is pretty good. I’d like 100%, for everyone’s sake. I have 80% (although condoms do also protect against cervical cancer, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and more).

In fact, there is no single perfect solution to the problem of Aids: if things were that easy, it wouldn’t be killing 2 million people every year. Telling people to abstain doesn’t make everyone abstain, and telling people to use condoms won’t make everyone instantly and consistently use condoms.

You do everything all at once, urgently, because 2 million people are dying every year. ABC is a widely used prevention acronym in Africa: abstain, be faithful, use a condom. Picking one effective measure out and actively campaigning against it is plainly destructive.

Ratzinger has proclaimed that “The most effective presence on the front in the battle against HIV/AIDS is in fact the Catholic Church and her institutions.” This is a ludicrous claim. They’re the only major influential international political organisation that actively tells people not to do something that works, on a huge scale. Their own figures show that their numbers are growing in Africa, even faster than the population does.

I don’t mind what anyone believes, I’m happy for you to suggest abstention. But sabotaging an effective intervention which prevents a disease that kills 2 million people a year makes you a serious global public health problem.
In this, Ratzinger is hardly alone or novel. His predecessor Karol Wjotla (John Paul II) was equally culpable in actively campaigning against sexual protections which could save lives. His support for George Buss II's  "Global Gag Rule" being perhaps the worst of his crimes.

All of which brings home the point that the issues which surround the Pope go further than just one man. Or even one Church.

Yes, Joseph Ratzinger is personally culpable in the global child abuse scandal and should face charges. Equally, the Catholic Church has a lot to answer for in both that scandal and the issue of AIDS in Africa, amongst other things.

But we should not forget that none of this could have happened without religious belief being able to wield the influence it does on the political stage. Whatever model we advocate for a fairer world, to be truly just it has to be unwaveringly secular.