On March 17, while on the way to Africa, Joseph Ratzinger (a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI) said that HIV/AIDS was “a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which can even increase the problem.”
The first two clauses are sensible. The third was a dumb and ignorant thing to say. It contradicts very solid empirical evidence to the contrary. Worse yet, it is dangerously ignorant—and certain to cost lives, precisely because Mr. Ratzinger’s word—especially when spoken under his pseudonym—is held to be unquestionable. (Which is why I refer to him by his human name.)
The problem is not that he said it. I’m a fierce advocate of the inalienable human right to say dumb and ignorant things. I like to claim that right myself once in a while, thank you very much. The best way to find out whether an idea of mine is dumb and ignorant is to let it get past my lips. My fellow humans aren’t shy about setting me straight. And that’s good.
The problem with Mr. Ratzinger’s statement is that no matter how self-evidently dumb, millions will not only refuse to set him straight, but try their best to prevent others from doing so.
This wasn’t the first time a member of the highest Catholic ranks has made a disastrously ignorant remark about condoms in Africa. In 2007, the Archbishop of Mozambique claimed that many condoms were intentionally infected with the AIDS virus by European manufacturers.
Forward two years and up one rank—now it’s the Pope.
For the most part, the reactions were predictable—outrage from non-Catholics and a closing of ranks among Catholics — including the claim that you simply may not criticize the Pope.
In response to an editorial cartoon in the Times of London related to Mr. Ratzinger’s comments, Archbishop of Westminster Cormac Murphy O’Connor sounded the predictable note of outrage: “No newspaper should show such disrespect to a person who is held in high esteem by a large proportion of Christians in the world. To pillory the Pope in this way is totally unacceptable.”
So because he is held in high esteem by large numbers, his statements must be respected by the rest of us. I think not—in fact, I seem to recall a whole fallacy devoted to that idea.
The same hollow claim of immunity is captured in this editorial headline in a major Tanzanian daily: Politicians have no moral authority to question Pope’s stand on condoms. (Cue derisive laughter.)
Papal spokesman Federico Lombardi noted that Mr. Ratzinger was merely continuing the line taken by his predecessors, as if this is relevant. In 1990, Karol Józef Wojtyła (aka Pope John Paul II) unhelpfully opined that using condoms is a sin in any circumstance.
Before we even assess the sense or the consequences of that, enjoy a good snort at the idea that a statement is more legitimate only because someone else—anyone else—said it. (Secularists do this, too. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard some form of “Yuh huh, Richard Dawkins says so” offered in full defense of a position.)
The most encouraging part of this whole fece-fling is the voice of Catholic dissent. There are good folks living inside the belly of the beast who have the cojones to ignore repeated orders to switch off their frontal lobes until the Captain says it’s OK to use them again—those with the willingness to think about and openly criticize the statements of a religious leader on merit, regardless of the shape of his hat.
Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice said, “It took the church hierarchy 359 years to stop continuing the line taken by their predecessors on Galileo. We hope that this error does not take so long to change.”
The health ministry of Spain (81% Catholic) said, “Condoms have been demonstrated to be a necessary element in prevention policies and an efficient barrier against the virus.” The statement was issued in the course of announcing a shipment of 1 million condoms to Africa—on the same day as the Pope’s remarks.
Now that’s cojones from the country that invented the very word.
But the Academy Award for Outstanding Scrotal Fortitude has to go to Robert McElvaine, professor of Arts & Letters at Millsap College and self-identified Catholic, who wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog titled “Impeach the Pope” :
Benedict XVI opens a visit to Africa by telling the people of a continent decimated by AIDS that the distribution of condoms “increases the problem” of the spread of AIDS. I am a Catholic and the idea that such a man is God’s spokesperson on earth is absurd to me.
There are, of course, no provisions in the hierarchical institution set up, not by Jesus but by men who hijacked his name and in many cases perverted his teachings, for impeaching a pope and removing him from office. But there ought to be.
It didn’t take long for the holy knives of umbrage to come out for McElvaine. Edward Peters, author of Excommunication and the Catholic Church: Straight Answers to Tough Questions, said that “A canonical penal process should be undertaken against Robert McElvaine” for criticizing the Pope’s statement. And he’s not talking out of his hat—he points to the elements of canon law that support this position.
If there’s a clearer indictment of religion at its most ignorant and counterproductive than that sentence and the article in which it appears, I haven’t seen it.
Many Catholics can and do think for themselves. Many, many more, though, will take Mr. Ratzinger’s opinion as gospel. Think of all the good the Vatican could do with its influence—and of the murderous damage it so often chooses to do instead.
(For a glimpse of what a Catholic hornet’s nest looks like when whacked with a dissenting thought, read the comments on the McElvaine piece.)