The poor reporting which inflamed controversy over Pope Benedict XVI’s comments on condom use in African HIV prevention missed his “larger message,” Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus Carl Anderson has charged. He claimed the media have created a sound bite “gotcha” game in which reporters and commentators uncritically accepted the opinions of papal critics.
The controversy also reflects a “fundamental difference” in philosophies, Anderson added. While the Pope believes that people are capable of doing the right thing, Anderson argues his critics do not.
Writing in his recent column “AIDS, Africa and Pope Benedict,” Anderson defended the accuracy of the Pope’s comments that reliance on condoms to combat the spread of AIDS risks “worsening the crisis.”
He cited a recent UNAIDS study which said “there are no definite examples yet of generalized epidemics that have been turned back by prevention programs based primarily on condom promotion.”
Anderson also cited a 2004 study of AIDS trends in Africa conducted by the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, which is headed by Dr. Edward C. Green. The study reported that behavior change is necessary to decrease HIV infection rates, but there has been “relatively little” promotion of behavior change relative to promotion of condom use.
“What the researchers mean by ‘primary behavior change’ is both abstinence and being faithful to one’s partner,” Anderson wrote.
In a recent interview with National Review Online, however, Dr. Green noted that the Pope’s comments presented monogamy as the best answer to AIDS, rather than abstinence.
In Green’s interview, cited by Anderson, the researcher also said that HIV rates tend to go up where condoms are readily available, possibly because condom users take more risks than they might otherwise.
Turning to critics of the Pope, Anderson argued many of them assume that “people cannot help themselves when it comes to having sex, and that advocating for better and more moral behavior is futile.”
“Many Africans who I know personally think otherwise,” he said.
Again citing the 2004 Harvard report, Anderson said that the HIV rate in the Karamoja region of northeast Uganda had fallen to less than 2 percent compared with the rate of 30 percent in other regions.
“Interestingly,” Anderson wrote, “it is the area of Uganda where people have one of the lowest levels of condom use (about 3%), but also the lowest level of men and women reporting multiple sexual partners (less than 2%).”
Anderson then criticized the use of “isolated sound bites” in media reports on Pope Benedict.
“First at Regensberg, again at La Sapienza University in Rome, then in the controversy over Bishop Williamson, and now in Africa, the pope’s actual message was ignored as critics took his words out of context – or ignored their clear meaning,” he said.
He then repeated Pope Benedict’s actual comments on HIV/AIDS in Africa:
“If the soul is lacking, if Africans do not help one another, the scourge cannot be resolved by distributing condoms; quite the contrary, we risk worsening the problem. The solution can only come through a two-fold commitment: firstly, the humanization of sexuality… and secondly, true friendship, above all with those who are suffering… And these are the factors that bring visible progress.”
Anderson then commented that the pope’s “larger message” about the need for building a “true ‘civilization of love’” in Africa was “nearly ignored altogether.”
“Critics and commentators who professed shock at the Pope’s remarks could have called Dr. Green. They could have read the UN and Harvard studies. But instead, they assumed that Benedict was wrong. The Pope and all of us deserve better.”