John Allen reflects on the Pope’s time in Africa (National Catholic Reporter, 2009)
I don’t think I’ve ever covered a papal trip where the gap between internal and external perceptions has been as vast as over these three days. It’s almost as if the pope has made two separate visits to Cameroon: the one reported internationally and the one Africans actually experienced.
In the U.S. and many other parts of the world, coverage has been “all condoms, all the time,” triggered by comments from Benedict aboard the papal plane to the effect that condoms aren’t the right way to fight AIDS. In Africa, meanwhile, the trip has been a hit, beginning with Benedict’s dramatic insistence that Christians must never be silent in the face of “corruption and abuses of power,” and extending through a remarkable meeting with African Muslims in which the pope said more clearly and succinctly what he wanted to say three years ago in his infamous Regensburg address, and without the gratuitous quotation from a Byzantine emperor.
Vast and pumped-up crowds flocked to see the pope, and Benedict seemed swept up in the enthusiasm. Twice he referred to Africa as the “continent of hope,” and at one point, this consummate theologian even mused aloud about a new burst of intellectual energy in Africa that might generate a 21st century version of the famed school of Alexandria, which gave the early church such luminaries as Clement and Origen.
As counter-intuitive as it may seem to Westerners, it was difficult to find anyone in Cameroon –at least anyone who wasn’t a foreign journalist or missionary, or an employee of an overseas NGO– for whom the condoms issue loomed especially large. The locals had different opinions on whether condoms are the right way to tackle AIDS, of course, but it didn’t seem to dominate their impressions of the event.
Bottom line: Seen from abroad, the trip has been about condoms; on the ground, it’s felt like a celebration of African Catholicism. Here’s a surreal experience that underscores the disjunction.
On Tuesday, I prepared a piece on the pope’s indirect, but unmistakable, rebuke of Cameroon’s President Paul Biya – a former Catholic seminarian who has tried repeatedly to wrap himself in the papal flag while Benedict is in town. Billboards around Yaoundè assert a “perfect communion” between the two, and colorful African-style shirts and dresses distributed for the trip are festooned with pictures of Biya and Benedict. Biya is also, however, a classic African strongman, who has ruled Cameroon since 1982 through a blend of occasional repression and constant corruption.
Benedict didn’t want to embarrass his host, but he also didn’t want the photo-op to imply a papal seal of approval. Thus, without mentioning Biya directly, Benedict said pointedly that Christians must speak out against “corruption and abuses of power.” That was enough to set off shockwaves in Cameroon, and it seemed to invigorate local church leaders. The next morning, Cardinal Christian Tumi, Cameroon’s lone cardinal, publicly asked Biya to withdraw as a candidate in elections set for 2011, something that previously almost no one would have dared to do.
I was outlining all this in my article when I had to break off to do an interview with CNN International about day one of the trip … which was entirely devoted to the condoms controversy. To be honest, I had to wonder if we were even talking about the same event.
That said, let me be clear: This perception gap is not exclusively, or even primarily, the media’s fault. The reporter from French TV who asked Benedict the condom question aboard the papal plane was well within bounds; AIDS is serious business, and it’s fair game to ask the pope about it on his first visit to the continent that’s been hardest hit by the disease. Once the question was popped, the ball was in Benedict’s court. Much of the blame for what happened next, therefore, has to lie at his feet.
By that, I’m not taking any position on the substance of the pope’s answer, though in fairness he did no more than repeat church teaching on contraception, as well as the nearly unanimous view of every African bishop I’ve ever interviewed: that condoms give their people a false sense of invulnerability, thereby encouraging risky sexual behavior. That may be debatable, but one can hardly fault the pope for taking his cues from the bishops on the ground. (Ironically, popes usually get in trouble precisely for not listening to local bishops.)
Setting aside what he said, there’s still the matter of whether this was the right time and place to say it – especially since it would inevitably overshadow the message Benedict was flying to Africa to deliver. (It’s worth recalling that the pope has been down this road before. En route to Brazil in 2007, he took a question about excommunicating politicians who support abortion rights, thereby blotting day one of his first trip to Latin America out of the sky.)
Anybody who’s ever spent time in front of cameras knows how to dance around a question that’s not going to lead anywhere good. Benedict could have said something like: “Of course the church is deeply concerned about AIDS, which is why a quarter of all AIDS patients in the world are cared for by Catholic hospitals and other facilities. As far as condoms are concerned, our teaching is well-known, but today isn’t the right time for discussing it. Instead, I want to focus on my message of hope to the African people,” etc., etc. The story that probably would have resulted – “Benedict shrugs off condoms query” – would hardly have generated a global uproar.
Someone hungry for a silver lining might be tempted to say that the sideshow on condoms made the world pay attention to the Africa trip – except, of course, it didn’t. Instead, Africa became a backdrop to another round in the Western culture wars.
Yet however one assigns the blame, the fact remains that international discussion of Benedict in Cameroon has left a badly distorted impression of the trip’s aims and content. If the first rule for assessing an event is to understand what actually happened, then drawing conclusions about Benedict’s African journey is going to require more than simply following the bouncing ball on the great condom debate.
AFRICA/AIDS “wars” distorted by libertarians
The Irish Times, 2009
DRIVING AROUND Uganda in recent years, you could hardly help noticing the government-sponsored advertising hoardings along the highway. One had a picture of a smiling man in his 60s with the slogan, “Say No to Sugar Daddies”. Another showed a slightly younger man, and the slogan, “Would you want this man sleeping with your daughter? So why are you sleeping with his?” The billboards were part of Uganda’s long, successful battle against Aids, these posters being directed at creating a sexual firebreak between generations.
In the 1980s, Uganda was at the epicentre of the African Aids catastrophe, but managed to reverse the spread of the disease through an emphasis on cultural adaptation – abstinence, fidelity and some education about condom use. In Europe and America, however, whenever the subject of Aids and Africa is mentioned, there is an assumption that condoms are incontrovertibly the sole option.
No sooner had Pope Benedict XVI stepped off the aircraft in Cameroon this week than the western media was again pumping out its partisan propaganda. The pope was reported saying Aids could not be overcome through the distribution of condoms, “which even aggravates the problems”. As usual, voices asserted that the battle against Aids in Africa was all about condoms, with the Catholic position treated as dangerous obscurantism. Benedict, we were told, was “refusing to yield”.
Spokesmen and women for European governments claimed the use of condoms was the vital element in the fight against Aids. We were told that “even” some priests and nuns working against Aids believe the pope is wrong.
But for every such voice, there are hundreds of priests, nuns and other anti-Aids activists in Africa saying the western obsession with condoms is a distraction. What works is action to change sexual behaviour, and the Catholic Church has long been to the fore in pushing such initiatives.
At the core of the kick-the- pope argument is a gross absurdity. Aids was spread in Africa mainly by truck drivers using prostitutes along the arterial highways that string together an otherwise disorderly continent.
The pope, as well as opposing condoms, is also hostile to prostitution and extra-marital sex, and yet it is implied that those who have been spreading HIV/Aids through promiscuous behaviour would wear condoms if the pope told them to do so. But Pope Benedict is neither a lawmaker nor a policeman. He has the power simply to speak the truth as he has received it and then allow everyone the freedom to decide for themselves.
Whether the libertarian West likes it or not, much of the evidence in Africa indicates that emphasis on monogamy and sexual continence is what delivers on Aids. Uganda many years ago identified the problem as a cultural one relating to sexual promiscuity, with condoms a minor and ambiguous sidebar. The Government promoted the standard “ABC” approach (abstain, be faithful, use condoms), but condoms did not play a significant part in the early battle against the disease, largely because President Yoweri Museveni believed they offered false hope that the disease could be curbed without a change in sexual behaviour. Later, under assault from the West, the Ugandan health ministry began giving out about 80 million free condoms a year. But after some batches were found to be defective, the government now distributes far fewer condoms.
In the 25 years since Aids was first reported in Uganda, broad-based partnerships and effective public education campaigns have contributed to a spectacular decline in the number of people contracting HIV and Aids.
State-sponsored programmes reduced Aids prevalence from over 30 per cent to about 6 per cent. Fidelity to a single partner was the dominant message of early HIV prevention campaigns. Uganda’s first lady Janet Museveni has been a vocal proponent of abstinence approaches, and has been widely criticised by the same people who regularly attack the pope.
In recent years, there has been a slight disimprovement in Uganda’s Aids situation. External critics, predictably, have blamed abstinence policies, but the facts are not so clear-cut. Although western propaganda seeks to fudge this, there is some evidence that condom availability may have diluted the earlier message, causing a shift back to old habits.
Ideally, one might think, abstinence programmes and safe sex strategies should complement each other. But in practice the approaches are mutually incompatible. Once you advocate condom use, you are accepting that abstinence is no longer a persuasive option. And if you argue, as the Catholic Church does, that promiscuity promotes HIV/Aids, it would be ludicrous to recommend measures that, implicitly, suggest that this position can be relativised.
This is a complex issue, which certainly cannot be reduced to a simple questions of condoms. What the world needs is a full and truthful discussion, not bigoted, libertarian propaganda masquerading as reportage.