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Witches, Condoms and the Pope

Get in line in that processional,
Step into that small confessional,
There, the guy who’s got religion’ll
Tell you if your sin’s original. . . .
— Tom Lehrer, The Vatican Rag

He’s batting 50-50 which isn’t bad for most people. If you’re infallible, however, it’s not the sort of thing you’d brag about the next time you talk to your Father. The witches kept him from batting a zero.

While traveling through Africa recently Pope Benedict XVI came out firmly against witchcraft. Addressing the multitude of Catholics that were lining the Angolan streets on March 21, the Pope told his audience that if they had friends or neighbors who believed in witchcraft they should try to convert them. At a mass in Luanda at which two people who had already been saved were trampled to death in the mob’s eagerness to hear what the man from Rome had to say, the Pope said: “In today’s Angola Catholics should offer the message of Christ to the many who live in the fear of spirits, of evil powers by whom they feel threatened.” The Pope imparted the same message to a group of clergymen and nuns earlier in the day when he said they should be missionaries to the Angolans who live in fear “of spirits, of malign and threatening powers. In their bewilderment they end up even condemning street children and the elderly as alleged sorcerers.” (It sounded remarkably like a description of the effects religion had on the early settlers in the United States.) It was not a particularly courageous stand for him to take since witchcraft has pretty much fallen out of favor in most parts of the world and a suggestion from him that it should be abandoned is not a suggestion that bespeaks great moral courage. Nonetheless, not everything that boosts your average is a great feat and so it was with the attack on witchcraft. It simply raised the Pope’s average to 50-50. It was his observations at the beginning of the trip that kept him from hitting 100% with his attack on witchcraft.

Joining the enlightened crowd that sits on the Texas Board of Education and would like to include in the Texas curriculum the fact (as they see it) that evolution is nothing more than a theory and there are other theories to be explored to explain the world) the Pope’s first pronouncements on his trip to Africa was that the use of condoms worsens the HIV problem. The Papal pronouncement came on the first day of his visit. Believing that the power of the word is more effective than the power of the prophylactic, he said that the proven most effective way to prevent the spread of AIDS is to just say no. He said to reporters on his plane that: “You can’t resolve it [AIDS] with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary” said he “it increases the problem.”

Long before AIDS had become a prominent member of society, the Pope and his predecessors opposed any means of artificial contraception. Once AIDS made its appearance, the Senior Vatican officials adopted the position that the most effective way of preventing the spread of AIDS, aside from remaining faithful to one’s partner, was avoiding sex. Although the thousands of sexual abuse suits that have been brought against the Church and settled, conclusively prove that avoiding sex is easier said than done, the Vatican Officials are undeterred. The Church remains firmly opposed to condoms while nonetheless proclaiming itself a leader in the fight against AIDS.

Twenty-two million people are infected with AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa according to UNAIDS. Two-thirds of all the deaths in the world from AIDS took place in that part of the world. The Church’s position distresses those who instead of contemplating the disease from the bubble of the Popemobile must work with its victims on a daily basis. Speaking to a reporter from the Washington Post, a teacher in Yaounde said: “Talking about the non-use of condoms is out of place. We need condoms to protect ourselves against diseases and AIDS.” Echoing those sentiments Rebecca Hodes with the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa said: “[H]is opposition to condoms conveys that religious dogma is more important to him than the lives of Africans.” She’s got that right. Even some of the Pope colleagues, if not equals, differ with the Pope. Monsignor Illidio Leandro, a Portuguese bishop has said that people with AIDS are “morally obliged to use them.” Acknowledging the fact that some folks can’t avoid sex he said such people are “morally obliged to avoid passing on the disease by using a condom.” The Bishop is a realist.

The Church and witchcraft have one thing in common. Neither believes condoms will prevent the spread of AIDS, the Pope because he doesn’t believe they work and followers of witchcraft because they know witches give AIDS to those they dislike. It will be hard to reduce the AIDS epidemic in Africa. That’s because it’s hard to teach those whose creed is ignorance.

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