Religions are bundles of ideas and superstitions. Some of these ideas are false but useful, many more are false and dangerous. When the dangerous ideas are codified in official doctrines and institutions, they become positively corrosive. And the result is usually needless human suffering.
Perhaps the most glaring example of this can be seen today in Central Africa, where the Catholic Church continues to preach the sinfulness of condom use. Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing a devastating HIV and AIDs epidemic, and Catholic prohibitions on contraception are quite literally killing people.
This is a moral outrage and it should treated as such.
Pope Francis has endeared himself to many on the Left. He’s spoken courageously about the ethics of climate change and he’s said some encouraging – and progressive – things about LGBT people. But this is one issue where he has remained suspiciously silent, and he should be condemned repeatedly for it.
Francis concluded a five day to trip to Africa on Monday, when he visited a mosque in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republican. Along with Kenya and Uganda (the other two countries on Francis’s tour), the CAR has some of the highest HIV infection rates on the planet, and all three countries are heavily Catholic.
The numbers are staggering.
In Kenya, something like 1,400,000 people are living with HIV – roughly 6 percent of the population between the ages of 15 and 49. And the rate of infection is significantly higher among young women. In Uganda, the numbers are worse, with close to 8 percent of the same population living with HIV. In Zambia, 13.5 percent of the adult population was identified as HIV-positive as far back as 2009. And the statistics are similarly awful in many other countries in the region.
Shamefully, the Catholic Church has refused to revise its regressive social policies in the face of this crisis. The church continues to serve itself, however, spreading its message and its influence wherever it can, but the enormous suffering wrought by its immoral preachments are not sufficient to provoke change it seems.
In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI appeared to hint at change on this front, but he stopped short of ending the prohibition on contraceptive use. Instead, he equivocated, saying condoms might be permissible in “certain” situations, specifically by male sex workers, “for whom trying to prevent HIV transmission could be ‘a first step in the direction of moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.’”
Notice the emphasis on “moralization.” The church isn’t interested in dealing with reality, in reducing actual suffering. Their puerile obsession with sex has blinded them to the tragedy in front of them, a tragedy they have made infinitely worse.
Anyone not blinkered by religious dogma can see the moral confusion here. The church still believes sex outside of marriage is a greater evil than AIDs. They would rather people die on account of their sexuality than alter their treasured doctrines. What else can we conclude from their obstinacy on this issue?
Beliefs matter. There is no question that people are dying needlessly out of a misplaced devotion to bad ideas. Catholics in these countries are abiding by the church’s ban on condoms because they believe the alternative is excommunication or worse. That the church or anyone affiliated with it is too invested in its doctrines and traditions to acknowledge this should offend the moral sensibilities of everyone, including Catholics.
Religious people often confuse ethical concerns with doctrinal fidelity. But ethics is about wellbeing and suffering, not rigid adherence to bad or well-intentioned ideas. 44 percent of the Central African region is Catholic. If Pope Francis was committed to human rights, to healing the sick and helping the vulnerable, he would’ve used his trip to Africa to speak out on this issue, to make it clear that human bodies are more important than religious abstractions.
But he didn’t do that.
Whatever else Pope Francis has done, this is a stain on his record. He is a uniquely important figure, a man with as much moral capital as anyone. If he was brave enough, he could use his platform and influence to do some good on this front - and yet he has chosen not to.
There is no coherent defense of the Catholic position on contraception in Africa or anywhere else. The church remains deeply confused about human sexuality and about how people actually live. People are dying every day. The misinformation, the religious intimidation, and the moral backwardness of the church are all contributing to the spread of a deadly but preventable disease.
This is a manufactured tragedy, in other words, and the Catholic Church bears much of the responsibility.
Pope Francis deserves a lot of credit for the direction he’s taken the church, but he’s complicit in this crisis. His recent visit to Africa was a reminder both of his negligence and, more importantly, of the institutionalized rot within the church.