Apr 7, 2009

To Vatican Critics: Media Matters for You Too

I got annoyed at a few friends the other night and I think I shot the messenger. They mentioned that they were annoyed at Pope Benedict's statements while he was in Africa about how condoms are not a solution to the AIDS crisis.

I asked them (probably in an angry NY tone) what they thought the Pope meant. One claimed that they weren't sure and the other said that they thought the Pope was saying that condoms are not a way to prevent the spread of AIDS--that they don't work--that scientifically condoms don't really prevent the AIDS virus.


What the Pope was saying was that condoms are a quick fix. That they don't stop the real systemic problem at hand which is an unhealthy and cheapened view of sexuality--which most people in the world actually subscribe to and which many men especially in Africa have taken to an extreme.

Women are regarded in Africa by many men in that culture as disposable. They are only there to serve the sexual needs of men. We shouldn't single out Africa in this regard as this is a widespread phenomenon.

So the Pope's suggestion is that condoms do not create a culture change and a shift in the sexual mindset of the world--especially on a continent where AIDS and HIV is a huge problem--is what is really needed.

But what happens now? His answer is taken out of context and blown up in the media as the Pope saying that we don't need condoms in Africa to solve the AIDS crisis with no explanation at all and most people come away thinking that the Pope just made a stupid and perhaps even an out-of-touch statement.

He did not. But now we'll never hear him go beyond this statement because the Vatican PR department won't field anymore questions on the subject out of fear.

The good follow up question that I suspect the Pope may even have a brilliant idea about is this:

"While it may be true that a more systemic change is needed to really solve the problem of AIDS in the world, there are many people who may not share that opinion. While we realize that you need to set the bar high by calling people to a higher standard and uphold the teachings of the Catholic faith, can you also share any ideas you may have to keep people safe in the meantime, before this culture change hopefully takes hold on the culture--or even dare we say, if it doesn't?"

Culture change doesn't happen overnight. And while I agree with the Pope's point, I'd sincerely like to hear what ideas he might promote of a practical nature that will protect, especially women who are often raped by men with the AIDS virus or are forced to have sex with their husbands who may be transmitting the virus as well.

While I'm not likely to get an answer from the Holy Father on this matter, I'm wondering what y'all think about two things:

1) Is the media as well as the general public shooting us in the foot by taking questions out of context?

2) What ideas might we have for both building a change in the culture and for keeping people safe in the meantime?

Let's say that condoms are not an option just for kicks!

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St Edwards Blog said...

Very thought provoking post Mike - with your angry NY tone and all! Not to make light, but I see how that plays for me, transplanted here to another part of NY! I must always try to modulate without loosing my focus!

Back to the point at hand...

I agree with you - messages like these are first of all taken out of context and thrown off the roof like a big water balloon that create a tsunami like wave. This drives me crazy.

Very few people would call me the most obedient servant, I say with more than a little regret, but if you are going to blast the Vatican, the Pope, etc - at least try to know what you are talking about.

My bigger issue comes around the fact that human sexuality has always been one of the most challenging and difficult things to tackle.

Somewhere in between (ah, the in between where most wisdom lies) the "just say no" and "just say condoms" thoughts is something else. Both positions are reactions at the edge of a complex problem.

I was reading another blog that spoke about obedience as reaction in fear versus response in love... How do we ever get to the latter, which is true obedience.

I am kind of rambling on here, I hope I make at least a little sense.

Human sexuality is cheapened and that is the root of dignity and life, truly demeaned. As a woman who has been sexually threatened and assaulted*, something I bring up because it lies at the heart of these teachings for me,how do we get beyond the extremes?

That is where the change in the culture that you address is germinating.

So that does mean saying that condoms are not an option. But what else do we say? (she asks rhetorically...)


*PS- I am ok and no I don't mind talking about it because it matters... Years of support, love, healing and grace are at the root of that, gifts of my faith and my community. Thanks be to God. Ultimately another topic for another day and I hope that you don't mind me inserting it in this already-too-long-comment!

Jason said...

What the Pope was saying was that condoms are a quick fix.

But he didn't say that. That's what the follow up commentaries implied, interpreting and recontextualizing the Holy Father's statement.

True, he did go on to say the culture's views of sexuality need to be changed, and I agree with that, but with regard to condoms, the Pope didn't qualify his statement by saying that they aren't a final solution, and he didn't qualify it by saying they're not a broad solution, or by saying they're a "quick fix."

He said they aren't the solution and they make the problem worse. I think people are right to take issue with that problematic phrase.

I'll also add that the debate over AIDS prevention in the US is usually caught up in our own ideological debates which take an either/or approach on condoms and abstinence. When the pro-abstinence side hears that a Harvard scientist thinks that abstinence/monogamy promotion has been highly successful, that's taken out of context, or perhaps recontextualized to say that condoms should be eliminated from the solution.

The science seems to indicate, including a study coauthored by the widely quoted Harvard anthropologist, that targeted condom availability is a necessary part of a broad strategy alongside abstinence/monogamy promotion and other factors.

My own experience from working in AIDS prevention in Malawi is that most people know that. So when the pope is quoted as saying that condoms exacerbate the problem, which is in fact what he said, he comes off as someone who disregards science, which affects his credibility.

It seems you want to take this in a direction of "the media and general public shooting us in the foot," but I don't think all of the blame belongs there. If the Holy Father is going to take a controversial question, he and his public relations team need to be better prepared handle it. If he had simply responded with his statement about the humanization of sexuality, that would have been one thing, but his preliminary comment about condoms created a distraction from his pilgrimage to Africa.

god googler said...

Two great comments--thanks!

Fran, sorry to hear of this and am glad you are OK. Thanks for sharing so much with us.

Jason--nice job in breaking this down. You are spot on with saying that the Pope's media crew (or lack of a good one) needs to know how to handle this situation. If he were allowed to take a follow up I think it would've been. What do you mean by saying that condoms exacerbate the problem? And then it might have been clearer that he was talking about a culture change and not science but alas, this did not happen.

Someone needs to play the role of "Holiness, if you say this, they are gonna say ________"

It does seem that the issue needs to be engaged so as to create a systemic solution to this problem that goes beyond "just give them a condom" though. I think that's where the Holy Father's wisdom--albeit proclaimed poorly--could help greatly.

Googling God

Googling God
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