Friday, March 27, 2009

Carl Anderson on the Pope, AIDS and Africa

Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus has penned the following on the subject of:

AIDS, Africa and Pope Benedict

by Carl Anderson

When Pope Benedict XVI suggested on his recent trip to Africa that condoms might be part of the problem, rather than the solution to the AIDS crisis, reaction from critics was swift.

Benedict's contention that relying on condoms to stem the AIDS crisis risks "worsening the crisis," may be news to his critics – who were widely quoted in the media – but he was correct.

Consider this: an analysis of AIDS trends in Africa by the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, headed by Dr. Edward C. Green, noted in 2004 that "There seems to be no evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa, certainly not in the five countries of present focus, that condom behavior alone can reverse the course of an HIV epidemic, no matter how high the levels attained. A recent literature review of condom promotion in resource- poor countries commissioned by UNAIDS reached a similar conclusion: 'Indeed, there are no definite examples yet of generalized epidemics that have been turned back by prevention programs based primarily on condom promotion.'"

The document adds this comment: "If primary behavior change, along with condom use, is essential for national level decrease in HIV infection rates, then the question of how these behaviors are successfully promoted become very important. Especially since there has been relatively little promotion of primary behavior change, compared to the risk reduction interventions of condom use…." What the researchers mean by "primary behavior change" is both abstinence and being faithful to one's partner.

What does this mean for the pope's comments? Dr. Edward Green, who oversaw the Harvard report cited above, told Christianity Today: "This is hard for a liberal like me to admit, but yes, [the criticism is] unfair because in fact, the best evidence we have supports [the pope's] comments."

In fact, Dr. Green also stated on National Review Online that studies show that HIV rates tend to go up – not down – where condoms are readily available. For one reason, condom users take more risks than they might otherwise, according to Dr. Green.

The underlying assumption of many critics is 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. And the 2004 report from Harvard shows otherwise. "Evidence supporting the primacy of primary behavior change (or maintenance) can be found in the Karamoja region of northeast Uganda." Here the HIV rate has fallen to less than 2% compared with 30% in other regions of the country. Interestingly, 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%).

In other words, behavior was changed because of the ABC approach adopted by Uganda – which promotes abstinence until marriage, being faithful, and puts condoms last as a means of prevention. Those who would continue to make condom funding the top HIV-prevention priority in Africa, and would cut domestic abstinence education in the United States, should take note.

What this controversy boils down to is a fundamental difference in
philosophies: Pope Benedict believes that people are capable of choosing to do the right thing. His critics do not.

Instead of receiving fair treatment by the media, Pope Benedict has often been the victim of a game of "gotcha" in which isolated sound bites – not his message – become the story as some reporters and commentators accept his critics' opinions – uncritically.

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.

The irony – as this case proves once again – is that Pope Benedict is not someone who is likely to be wrong on the facts. A detail-oriented scholar, accomplished musician, and a prolific writer whose many books show a keen ability to research, he has never been a person to make careless statements.

Consider what Pope Benedict actually said: "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."

The pope's larger message – that there is a need for a true "civilization of love" in Africa, a continent convulsed more than any other by war and disease – 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.

Pope Benedict has a long track record of careful and accurate scholarship. He brought a courageous message of behavior change to Africa—one of love and hope and one which has the potential to save untold lives.

As has happened in the past, the facts again vindicate Pope Benedict. We need more people like Dr. Green, who won't let politics color their objective judgment and more journalists who will pay attention.

Carl Anderson is Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus and a New York Times bestselling author. His latest book, Called to Love: Approaching John Paul II's Theology of the Body, will be available in April.