In 1991 the Catholic Church’s new Pope Joseph Ratzinger lectured his fellow bishops on the evils of contraception. “Millions more have been budgeted for making contraception less harmful to women, with the result that most chemical contraceptives on sale now act primarily against implantation, i.e., as abortifacients, without women knowing it. Who will be able to calculate the number of victims from this unseen holocaust?” Ratzinger thundered.
Yet, at the very time Ratzinger was delivering this uncompromising message, around the world AIDS was cutting a swathe through populations. The Catholic Church was then, and is today, responsible in a direct way for deaths caused by AIDS. By refusing to sanction the use of life protecting sexual protection devices such as condoms, Ratzinger and the hierarchy of the worldwide Catholic Church have blood on their hands.
Ratzinger asks about the “victims” of contraception, but he and his Church are not prepared to take the radical steps required to deal with the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis - the 6,000 African men, women and children who die from AIDS each day.
In sub-Saharan Africa today there are 29 million people infected by HIV. This represents 70 per cent of the worldwide HIV infected population of 42 million. And the rate of infection in Africa is climbing as population increases. There are estimates today that up to 33 per cent of sub-Saharan Africans will die of AIDS.
The level of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa is so acute that even with the growth of generic drugs, many governments and communities cannot afford to buy enough medicines to make a large scale and swift impact on this shocking disease. The use of condoms is a priority in slowing down the spread of AIDS and in trying to help reduce the daily death toll which outweighs any war, famine or natural disaster in any one year in terms of numbers of deaths each day.
In Africa the Catholic Church is a prominent citizen. According to one Catholic priest, John Corcoran, who was interviewed by the Sydney Catholic Weekly in 2003, in the past 15 years the number of Catholics has increased from 50 million to 117 million. In Africa, there are three times as many priests now being ordained as there were 20 years ago, according to Corcoran.
Of course, the Catholic Church’s influence over communities in sub-Saharan Africa is enhanced by virtue of the fact, as the Chicago Tribune noted on April 15, “In some war-torn parts of Africa, where governments remain weak, the Catholic Church has become the main provider of schools and health services and is seen as a positive and stabilizing social force”. And the Catholic Church’s views on homosexuality and the secondary place of women in the Church fit neatly with the illiberal tendencies of many conservative African leaders.
In short, the Catholic Church, if it had the compassion and the capacity to liberalise its intellectual and theological rigidities, could help to substantially reduce the death and suffering of millions of Africans. But Ratzinger is no leader - he is a slavish adherent to the view that human rights come a distant second to church teachings, based not on the Gospel but on a literal reading of pre-Enlightenment figures such as Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas.
Ratzinger, like his Australian admirers in George Pell and Dennis Hart, the Archbishops of Sydney and Melbourne respectively, is a rigid and authoritarian man. His capacity to show compassion and stand up for human rights is severely limited by his obsessive desire to uphold an established order and modus operandi that is increasingly out of step with human progress.
For every day that Ratzinger refuses to sanction contraception and protective sex in the name of a dubious philosophical and theological view, he and the Church he leads must be held partly responsible for deaths of millions of people in Africa and across the globe from AIDS.
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