Pell Rides Papal Bandwagon of Death
That’s one hell of an Easter message. In a contest between showing slavish support for the Pope and putting people in the way of disease and death, Cardinal George Pell chose loyalty. From the far distance of the Vatican comes the sound of a few hands clapping.
“They encourage promiscuity,” the cardinal told Sky Television. “The idea that you can solve a great spiritual and health crisis like AIDS with a few mechanical contraptions like condoms is ridiculous.”
It’s hardly news but in the face of this ridicule it has to be said again: Australia waged the world’s most effective war on AIDS by ignoring the Catholic Church. We did not heed the demands of John Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI. We encouraged people to use condoms, we distributed clean syringes and we saved thousands of lives.
Catholics applauded, though silently. While the hierarchy of the church remains locked into an ancient theology of sex that has terrible consequences in the modern world, the rank and file know better. But they are entirely submissive. They don’t rise up. They don’t heckle Benedict and Pell from the pews. Their courtesy is the great modern miracle of Catholicism.
But in the Western world at least, they don’t support the Vatican’s absolute ban on condoms. In 2007 Catholics for Choice engaged the Washington pollsters Belden Russonello & Stewart to find what Catholics in the United States, Ireland, Mexico, the Philippines and Ghana thought about this teaching.
In Ireland, 80 per cent of Catholics said they wanted it changed. In the US the figure was 63 per cent. In Mexico it was 60 per cent. The Philippines split 47 per cent to 49 per cent. The young church in Ghana stuck by the Vatican, with only 37 per cent of those polled calling for reform.
That is bad news for Africa, the principal recruiting ground for Christianity in the world today and the continent with the worst rates of HIV. It was as the Pope was flying into Cameroon – infection rate 5.5 per cent, compared with 0.1 per cent in Australia – that he reaffirmed the doctrinal hard line against condoms a few weeks ago.
Benedict was denounced by governments in Europe, attacked in medical journals and contradicted by a couple of bishops in Portugal. The armed forces bishop, Januario Torgal Ferreira, was quoted as saying: “to ban condom use was equivalent to consenting to the death of many people”.
But the papal death sentence wrapped in rhetoric about “spiritual human renewal” did not deter Africa’s faithful. Millions turned up for the pontiff’s Masses. Benedict could look out on a sea of exuberant faces endorsing, it would seem, the church’s ancient taboo against contraception so that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life”.
Christ didn’t lay down that rule. You won’t find it anywhere in the Bible. It crept into church teaching in the second century via Clement of Alexandria who came up with a formula – based as much as anything on Greek philosophy – that the only sanctified sex was sex within marriage for the purpose of procreation.
With that, the church and Western civilisation set off down a very odd track for a couple of millennia. In its purest form, Clement’s rule meant no contraception, no sex when conception is unlikely, no sex in positions that inhibit or forbid conception, no sex for the barren, no masturbation, and naturally, no homosexuality.
So absurd and cruel were these rules that churches began to soften some and delete others. Most Protestant denominations in the 20th century dumped all but the prohibitions against extramarital sex and homosexuality. But in the 1930s, the Catholic Church locked itself to Clement by reaffirming the ban on condoms.
By the time the Second Vatican Council met in the 1960s, the pill had been discovered. A commission of theologians and medical experts concluded after five years of study that there was no good reason for the church to ban it. But Pope Paul VI did exactly that in the infamous 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae.
All hell broke loose. The Vatican was compelled to put down a revolt that spread around the world. Enforcing the rule against contraception pitted the papacy against theologians, bishops and believers. Attendance at Mass in Western countries went into free fall. Rome didn’t budge. Demonising contraception remains, as much as anything, an issue of papal authority. It’s about power.
Though condoms prevent the transmission of genital herpes, genital warts, syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhoea, they were forbidden to the faithful. The first cases of AIDS were reported in the early 1980s, and by 2000 the US National Institutes of Health had concluded that, properly used, condoms reduce the risk of HIV/AIDS transmission by 85 per cent.
But the word from the Vatican was: absolutely no change. From time to time, brave bishops would contest the ruling. They were slapped down. There were glimmers of hope a few years ago when a great prince of the church, the former Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, began to argue that wearing a condom was less evil than infecting your partner.
Makes sense, but he was silenced and the Vatican reasserted the absolute ban that George Pell yesterday backed so exuberantly on Sky Television.
Already the weasel wordsmiths of the church will be working out ways to “explain” and put Pell’s words “in context” and throw in a few “experts” to prove him “right”.
It’s true that condoms don’t prevent all transmissions of HIV/AIDS. Aspirin doesn’t cure every headache either. And we know in our hearts – and every reputable study confirms – that the church’s call for abstinence is useless.
Sex beats prayer. Even bishops have sex. We know, because they have died of AIDS.
Since Humanae Vitae, disobedience has become a way of life for Catholics in the West. Catholics in Europe and Australia use contraception like everyone else. Safe sex campaigns have strong political backing. But how many good Catholics will die in Africa and the Philippines before they learn that in the 21st century disobeying the Vatican line is a matter of life and death?
The article originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.