A Catholic Sign of Contradiction in Africa

By Blake S. Neff

Benedict hits the red carpet in his red papal shoes. (Image courtesy of Agencia Brasil via Wikipedia)The concept of “sign of contradiction,” one persecuted manifesting holiness, is as old as the Christian religion itself. According to Christian tradition, major saints such as Peter and Paul as well as Jesus Christ himself were all put to death by a hostile society for spreading a message of holiness, but such trials are hardly confined to the past. To believing Christians, everything from the martyrdom of believers by dictatorial regimes to the scorn frequently heaped on the religious by more secular elements of society constitute modern signs of contradiction. It was perhaps in pursuit of evidence of another such sign of contradiction that the Aquinas House, Dartmouth’s Catholic Church, so-sponsored with the Social Justice Alliance the lecture “The Catholic Church and the AIDS Crisis: Friend of Foe?” on Monday, November 1. This lecture sought to address and counter one of the major attacks that has been brought against the Catholic Church in recent decades, the assertion that its position on contraception has contributed significantly to the devastating crisis of HIV and AIDS in Africa.

The lecturer for the event was Dr. Timothy Flanigan ’76, a Professor of Medicine at Brown University and Director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at both Rhode Island Hospital and The Miriam Hospital. In addition to being an expert on AIDS and the author of over 130 peer-reviewed articles, Flanigan is a practicing Catholic and is preparing to become a deacon within a few years. During his introduction, he poked fun at the secular reputation of Brown by stating that he was not yet a “recovering Catholic,” as some particularly disillusioned former believers have taken to calling themselves.

Perhaps anticipating that the average audience member lacked in-depth knowledge of the global HIV epidemic, a major portion of Flanigan’s lecture involved simply describing the current situation of the battle against HIV and AIDS. He explained that even within Sub-Saharan Africa rates of HIV infection vary drastically (from 1.6% of adults in Ghana to over 20% in Zimbabwe). He also briefly summarized the drastic advances in treatment methods in recent years, explaining that antiretroviral drugs can suppress the replication of HIV and extend a patient’s lifespan by decades, and even trigger a “Lazarus effect” in which those suffering from full-blown AIDS come back from the brink of death. The widespread implementation of antiretroviral drugs has extended millions of lives in recent years, but limited resources mean that millions more still don’t get the treatment they need.  Flanigan made little reference to the Catholic Church in this section, merely noting that through its medical and charitable services it is one of the world’s largest care providers for HIV victims.

Dr. Flanigan also spent a great deal of time on the matter of stigma in regards to HIV and AIDS. Thanks to the fact that no effective treatment existed when the virus first emerged, Flanigan stated that HIV has become the leprosy of the modern age. Treatment is greatly complicated by the refusal of many at-risk persons to be tested, while those who have tested positive go into denial and refuse to seek treatment or even acknowledge having the virus until their suffering becomes severe. In one particularly poignant anecdote, Flanigan quoted an African truck driver who refused to be tested for the virus with the statement that “As soon as I know I’m positive, I’ve begun to die.” This stigma is only strengthened by the legitimate fear many people have of being abandoned by friends and family if they acknowledge having the virus.

Finally working the Catholic Church directly into the AIDS picture, Flanigan greatly praised the role the Church has played in reducing the stigma of infection. He pointed towards Pope John Paul II’s policy of deliberately hugging those with HIV as a strong gesture, coming as it did in a period where some people were hesitant to even approach the infected. More generally, Catholics such as Mother Theresa were praised for their emphasis on loving and caring for victims rather than shunning them.

Once he finished summarizing the state of the AIDS crisis and the major obstacles in the way of treatment, Flanigan moved on to specific methods of checking the spread of the epidemic. Flanigan was bitterly critical of the “condom solution” rapidly adopted at the onset of the AIDS epidemic. He noted that the condoms-first policy was originally promoted to stem the epidemic among American homosexuals and that it worked quite well, but was then arrogantly applied as a global solution. At its worst, he said, this policy was simply offensive, as he pointed towards the many monogamous women in Africa who have acquired HIV from their husbands. He also said that a strong emphasis on condoms misses a great deal of the context in sexual relations. For instance, he pointed out that the prevalence of HIV in Charlotteville, South Africa, is about twice as high among drinkers as non-drinkers, demonstrating the role intoxication can play in unhealthy sexual encounters. Ultimately, Flanigan came to the conclusion that a strongly condom-based approach has not only been ineffective in the fight against AIDS, but may have even set back the effort by as much as 10 years.

In contrast to a condom-focused plan, Flanigan readily praised more comprehensive approaches like the ABC (Abstinence, Be Faithful, Condoms) approach championed by the Bush Administration. He said that including an emphasis on abstinence and monogamous fidelity made a great deal of sense to Africans, who are generally more religious than Europeans or Americans. As a result, these comprehensive policies were more in line with the cultural values of many Africans. 

He cited the success story of Uganda, where he claims a population-wide mobilization of everyone from the president to celebrities and church leaders encouraged a specifically Ugandan response to the epidemic. Uganda greatly encouraged sexual abstinence as well as “zero grazing,” an agricultural analogy telling men to limit themselves to a single partner. The results were very encouraging, as Uganda’s HIV prevalence dropped significantly. Increased condom use did not play a dramatic role in this shift, which was instead driven by nearly doubled rates of abstinence among young people, as well as drastically decreased rates of multiple-partner “grazing.” While Flanigan didn’t deny that condoms can be an effective way of checking HIV’s spread, he indicated they should only be considered as one part of a very broad solution.

It was only after completing this quite lengthy rundown of the general AIDS situation that Flanigan turned directly to the matter of the Catholic Church and its views on condoms, which have been a main source of criticism among the Church’s detractors. He began by explaining the relationship between the Church’s views on sexuality and its specific views on condoms. He noted that in the Western world, the Catholic view that sexuality is a God-given gift to be shared between a man and woman in a lifelong relationship is a decidedly countercultural view. He went on to say that blaming this traditional view for the spread of HIV is to utterly miss the point of these teachings. The Church, he said, is concerned with what it views as the healthiest (and presumably the holiest) lifestyle for each person, and is far less concerned with the hair-splitting of actions that it would already consider sinful. To expect the Church to comment on how to avoid diseases while visiting brothels when it condemns going to brothels in the first place is absurd. One may as well expect the Church to encourage safe driving while fleeing from the police for a murder one has committed.

While he made a valiant effort to defend the Church’s position, though, a few of Flanigan’s statements would likely raise the eyebrows of some orthodox Catholics. For instance, when questioned at the end of the lecture on how sex education should be handled, particularly in Church-run schools, he indicated that he would not oppose the free availability of condoms and perhaps limited education on their uses. To Catholics who hold firm to Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, this position is anathema, as it goes against the Church’s general opposition to all forms of artificial contraception.

This difference in viewpoint was unfortunate, as it goes to the core of criticisms towards the Catholic Church on the matter of AIDS. Catholics don’t merely receive hostility for opposing the use of contraception, but because they are said to deliberately impede dissemination of contraception and education concerning its use. A more frank discussion of this matter would have been welcome and, if an effective argument were presented, Flanigan could have more decisively rebutted those who attack the Church for its alleged moral failings. Instead, a rather major issue was left dangling.

Nevertheless, Flanigan’s lecture was generally effective. He did well at pointing out the many ways in which the Catholic Church has provided support in combating AIDS, and demonstrated quite nicely why the Church’s opposition to condom use was completely compatible with a strong response to AIDS. Since it was his first time giving the lecture, he’ll likely receive feedback from Catholic leaders and be able to improve his message and cover current weak points. With a little bit more work, Flanigan will hopefully be able to more conclusively prove that a genuine sign of contradiction exists in the form of the Catholic Church in Africa.