In January, I wrote about how the Vatican had decided to lift the excommunication of Holocaust-denying bishop Richard Williamson. After a worldwide avalanche of criticism, the church backtracked somewhat on this decision: Williamson is still welcomed back, although he's been ordered to recant his views, which to my knowledge he has not done.
But last week brought some news that eclipses even that outrage: on his first papal trip to Africa, Joseph Ratzinger, a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI, said that distribution of condoms makes the AIDS epidemic worse:
While en route from Rome to his first stop, Cameroon, the Pope said that the condition was "a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems."
Usually, I avoid rhetoric as pointed as the title of this post, but in this case, it is literally accurate: People will die from AIDS because of the ignorant nonsense being spread about by this pope. There are still millions of poor, uneducated African Catholics who put their trust in the proclamations of this pompous charlatan, and if they obey his advice to forsake condom use, it's a mathematical certainty that some of them will end up infected with HIV because of it.
The African people cannot wholly be blamed for this. In impoverished, rural communities lacking anything like a modern educational system, it would be unreasonable to expect that everyone would have access to scientific information about the causes and spread of AIDS. But no such considerations attach to Benedict, who's had the best education the Western world can impart, and who still chooses to repeat medieval superstitions rather than telling his flock the truth. He has extraordinary power to stop the spread of this deadly disease, if he chooses to use it, but is instead contributing to its spread. Africa is already burdened by enough superstitions that make treating epidemics difficult without this pope's gross and reckless irresponsibility. (And lest you think Roman Catholicism is the only denomination this ignorant, the Russian Orthodox church has backed Benedict's remarks.)
It's not just atheists who are reacting with justified fury to these remarks. European governments, international aid agencies, and even Catholic scholars like Robert McElvaine, in an essay titled "Impeach the Pope" (which can't be done, alas), have pointed out what a disgrace this pope is:
I am a Catholic and the idea that such a man is God's spokesperson on earth is absurd to me.
...the cardinal sin of the Catholic Church -- a literally deadly sin, if ever there was one -- is its opposition to birth control. Far from being, as the Church contends, part of its moral doctrine, this policy is, plainly, the immoral doctrine of the Church. The use of condoms is a pro-life position.
...Why does the Church persist in such a manifestly immoral doctrine? One suspects that it must be the usual twisted thinking about sex and women. The Church's opposition to birth control is largely an outgrowth of its all-male composition and those males' attempts to degrade women's physical powers by asserting that women and the intercourse into which they supposedly tempt men are necessary evils ("It is well for a man not to touch a woman," Paul instructed the Christians of Corinth), the only purpose of which is procreation.
Misogyny may not be "the Church's one foundation," but it is a major part of the base on which it was constructed.
Facing a fresh firestorm of criticism, it's not too surprising that the Vatican has backed off - slightly. More accurately, they've attempted to rewrite the historical record by claiming that the pope only said that condoms "risk" aggravating the problem of AIDS. This revisionism was soundly rejected by reporters who were on the scene, but even if we grant it, it doesn't alter the basic point: in Africa or any other AIDS-stricken region, condoms save lives. They are part of the solution, not part of the problem. Any ideologue who refuses to admit this has no legitimate place in the debate over how to put a stop to this terrible disease.