Misinterpretation or Obfuscation?

About a month ago, Pope Benedict XVI flew to an AIDS stricken region of Africa. During the flight, New Scientist is reporting that he told reporters that AIDS is a “drama that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which in the contrary increase the problem.”

The article then offers scientific arguments as to why the Pope is wrong before making the following statement:

Is the pope from another planet? Is he stupid? Uneducated? No, obviously not. Does he know something we don’t? No. But that might not be so obvious to everyone…

So on what basis is Benedict speaking? Doctrinal consistency. The Catholic Church believes that people must have sex only with their spouses, with no contraceptives, to leave open the chance of procreation. Besides, contraceptives encourage sex outside wedlock by minimising its consequences. So they have to insist that more condoms leads to more illicit sex and more AIDS.

Such medieval thinking is completely detached from the real world….

The sad reality of this report is that the Pope said much more than the soundbite that New Scientist is quoting. Here is the English translation of what Pope Benedict XVI said in context:

It is my belief believe that the most effective presence on the front in the battle against HIV/AIDS is in fact the Catholic Church and her institutions. … The problem of HIV/AIDS cannot be overcome with mere slogans. If the soul is lacking, if Africans do not help one another, the scourge cannot be resolved by distributing condoms; quite the contrary, we worsen the problem. The solution can only come through a twofold commitment: firstly, the humanisation of sexuality, in other words a spiritual and human renewal bringing a new way of behaving towards one another; and secondly, true friendship, above all with the suffering, a readiness – even through personal sacrifice – to stand by those who suffer.

Given what seems to be a quite reasonable stance on the part of Pope Benedict – that a respect for human life is at the root of the problem – I wonder why news organizations all over the internet (e.g., MSNBC, The Washington Post, the AP, the BBC, and more) seem intent on mis-reporting this story. Given that most of the AIDS cases in Africa come from rape or other sexual abuse, in which a condom is not a reasonable solution, it seems basic to say that no solution other than a change of human heart will have the affect that is needed – which to my reading is what the Pope said.

So what happened? Is it misinterpretation, or intentional obfuscation of what the Pope said? Why would seemingly credible news organizations want to vilify the Pope’s seemingly obvious response to the AIDS epidemic in Africa?

You can read the New Scientist article here, or click on the other news organizations above for their version of events.

A transcipt of what the Pope said can be found in Italian here.


9 responses to “Misinterpretation or Obfuscation?

  1. The pope’s response is not reasonable. Quite simply, there are more holes in abstinence than latex. It’s also a lot easier to talk someone into having sex than talking them into abstinence. Have you ever tried talking someone out of eating for the rest of his or her life? Sex is right up there for human basic needs. Procreation, it’s an force on an evolutionary level.. I also fail to see the ‘misinterpretation.’ In your quote, the pope begins with, “It is my belief believe that the most effective presence on the front in the battle against HIV/AIDS is in fact the Catholic Church and her institutions.” I understand the pope might feel this way. (Sometimes, I feel like I can make the best mac and cheese ever!) I do not understand how anyone else can take him seriously. Condoms will not solve the social problems associated with rape and abuse (which, may I ask, do you have a resource for your claim that, “most of the AIDS cases in Africa come from rape or other sexual abuse”?) and neither will religious imperialism.

    Nobody can wish for HIV/AIDS/Rape/Abuse to end any more than wishing for everyone to accept Catholicism/abstinence. Empirically speaking, condoms will (no source, sorry) and have begun to slow the spread of AIDs/HIV.

    Let me summarize: this change of heart- this is something people must be talked into. The person must forfeit his or her morals for those of another. If the person is malleable enough to turn into a Christian/change hearts, then what’s to stop him or her from changing back? Meanwhile, Jesus is screaming from heaven, ‘Just use the condoms I gave you! Please!!!’ Stop praying and wishing things would change and give these people the protection they need!

  2. Eric:

    I disagree strongly on almost all points. To start, imperialism is as imperialism does. You state that religious imperialism won’t solve the problems, but scientific imperialism will? Anecdotally, I know several MDs who have gone to Africa to educate on AIDS prevention, some of them Christian and some of them not. Universally, they have indicated that when you go into an area to “educate” on AIDS prevention, which includes educating on how the disease is spread, how to use condoms, and where to get condoms, there is success within about a month. After they leave and return 3 months later, the area is back to the pre-training behavior and denying that the education the MDs gave was true.

    This means that the AIDS epidemic in Africa is much more about changing behaviors and ways of thinking as it is about condoms. But wait, if we ask people to change behaviors (whether it is through different sexual conduct or using condoms) what is to keep them from switching back? Absolutely nothing. The sword cuts both ways there. No matter how you look at it, getting most African cultures to understand AIDS and condoms is a large shift in behavior. Whether or not that shift is from religion or science, it is still a shift that must be looked at closely. For instance, it is highly suggested that sex is not a very large factor in HIV transmission in Africa – cultural practices are. How would condoms help in such a situation?

    What are my sources for my claims? Most of them aren’t online or I couldn’t find them online, but here are several that can work as surragotes:
    A wikipedia article.
    A NY Times Article.
    A CS Monitor Article.
    A discover magazine article.
    And another Discover Magazine Article.

    I wish I could find the Scientific America article I read about 5 years ago, but no dice.

    There are more. Just google “why is AIDS in Africa spreading?” to see a ton of sources, almost all of which reference the high sexual abuse rate of men towards women, especially if they refuse sex or request a condom, and almost all of which talk about the other vectors of the disease that are becoming more apparent as workers are realizing the billions of dollars being spent on condoms and scientific education aren’t working.

    My point is the same as the CS Monitor article – education about condoms has been a disaster in Africa – the disease is spreading faster than treatment (source). What the Pope is advocating is a more anthropological approach. Certainly his approach is based in Catholic doctrine, but everyone’s approach is based on some doctrine – to think otherwise is myopic. His point is that condom education is not working AND MAY ACTUALLY BE HURTING GIVEN THE AFRICAN CULTURE. So, he advocates firstly “a new way of behaving towards one another” and “true friendship…to stand by those who suffer”.

    Where was abstinence mentioned? For that matter, where was sex mentioned? And why, exactly, given the sources I have outlined above, is the Pope’s response “not reasonable”? Seems like you’re assuming a lot about Pope Benedict’s statements (an argument from ignorance?), as well as underestimating his intelligence (an ad hominem argument?) . I would argue this is the most thoughtful Pope the Catholic Church has had in many, many years, even if he isn’t the best public speaker.

    And, not to be smug, but I’m not confident enough to speculate on what Jesus would say over this situation.

  3. Great points, well taken. I did inflate your argument with the cliche debates I am used to hearing.. forgive me for putting words in your mouth. And, I guess one must proselytize condom use as well as Jesus use.

    It is absolutely wonderful that this conversation is occurring. Whether we agree or not, condoms are an important part of society and not that often freely discussed. I honestly couldn’t image you writing the initial post; for some reason, it didn’t sound like you at all!

    I guess it’s hard to rationalize the Catholic Church combating AIDs. It’s hard to imagine anything combating AIDs. I just believe that condoms will do a better job than religion. We’d probably agree that Jesus could do the best job, but is it possible that there’s more Jesus in condoms than the Catholic Church?

  4. Great to see you here, Eric! I’m so glad that you are enjoying the discussion!

    I guess I want to throw in my 2cents. First, I see the pope saying here that the Catholic Church can help in showing Africans how to respect and befriend each other. I don’t read here at all that he specifically says preaching about Jesus would solve their abusive problems. Although I do realize that he sees a need for spiritual and human renewal and is that just a vague way of saying “bring them to Jesus”?

    Second, and the point that I have the most issue with in this situation, I don’t understand what the motive is for the news organizations to report what the pope said in such a way that doesn’t convey the spirit in which he said these comments. Is there no shame in mincing the pope’s words and pasting them back together to suit the news organizations’ motives?

  5. In my opinion, this was intentional obfuscation, and it’s maddening to me because I see it happen so often in the news these days. The media tends to be so left-wing and it seems that they obfuscate just about anything to do with conservative views or religion. I may just be too hot-headed about this subject, but I would say they like to spin stories this way just to make people like the Pope or other religious leaders look like unintelligent weirdos who are, in their own words “detached from the real world”.

  6. Eric:

    I’m glad for the conversation, too. In this case we can debate religion vs the use of condoms all day long, but one thing we should not turn away from is what works. As long as condoms work, they are an option that can be considered. I believe the facts show that in most African countries, they are not. What additional tools do we have to combat the spread of disease? The Pope’s suggestion isn’t as crazy as it may appear, given the general failure of other ways of combating AIDS.

    This argument gets more complicated when we begin to talk about other forms of birth control, such as what China is doing. But that’s a conversation for another time.

    I’m honestly not sure what to think about the intent, but I am pretty sure the root cause of this sort of reporting is laziness in vetting sources, and a lack of desire to appear unbiased. I don’t know what drives the former, but I believe we all create the later. Just just love to hear what we agree with rather than be challenged.

  7. This discussion has made me realize a few very insightful things- many of which about myself. Firstly, I read this article three times before commenting, and yet I read much more than you actually wrote. If the first thing your mind goes to when you hear “catholic church” is a priest molesting a young boy, then how can you possibly believe the Pope will do any good? That is where my mind goes. No doubt, other people think of different things.

    I am itching to have these conversations so much, I already have the canned responses ready to go. I will try much harder to address the topic as stated and not as canned.. 🙂

    About that media.. I never perceived the media as left-anything.. guess it’s hard to see the color of your own fishbowl.

  8. This has absolutely nothing to do with anything but Ben, I just have to say that your little afro duck icon cracks me up. Is that from a Bville pic or did you find it somewhere?

  9. My avatar is indeed made from a picture taken in Bville. There was a duck at Jo Allyn Lowe with a fro that I couldn’t not use. I have no idea how that duck got that fro, but, man, that duck’s got soul. I use him to slow-jam the news.

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