Tuesday, 16 March 2010

The Vatican And The Condom Conundrum

As a Roman Catholic and an African, I am already worried about what would be the outcome of the instruction being prepared by the Pontifical Council for Health on the use of condom by married Roman Catholic couples in the fight against STDs and HIV and AIDS. HIV and AIDS are already causing havoc in different parts of the world especially in Africa which unfortunately is bearing the highest brunt of these epidemics today. The Pontifical Council for Health is equivalent to the Department or Ministry of Health.

I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of the instruction but am very much afraid and worried that once again a very important issue bordering on human life would further be complicated by a verbose academic lucubrations from the Vatican. The fact that the final document is taking too long to come out is worrisome. The Pope, Benedict XVI, gave the instruction as far back as 2006 and up till today we are yet to have a document on this issue even as many are still succumbing to the threat of the virus. I am also afraid that the outcome may not be very far from the traditional views of the Roman Catholic Church. The instruction at the end of the day is likely to repeat the usual Vatican cliché and familiar tune of procreation being the essence of marital sex and that whatever goes against this would be considered obstruction to the Will of God and therefore not just a sin but a mortal one that can only be absolved by bishops. For conservative Roman Catholics the argument maybe quite plausible and understandable since they are wired to take hook, line and sinker whatever comes out of the Vatican. But we have to take a holistic view of this argument especially from the angle of the theory of lesser evil to grasp the reason the Roman Catholic Church should for once be liberal on issues like this; after all we are talking now not about contraception but saving of lives of millions of people.

I am just wondering what would have been the response of Our Lord Jesus Christ on this issue if He were still physically present here on earth. But before then recall that instead of outright condemnation He told an adulterous woman to go and sin no more. Recall again that when accused of breaking the Sabbath day by healing a diseased man He asked his accusers which is lesser evil to heal a diseased man on the Sabbath day or to abandon him in his suffering and sorrow. Bearing these in mind, I have no doubt that Christ would have sanctioned the use of condom by married couples in the fight against the spread of HIV and AIDS. He would probably have asked, “Which is lesser evil; to contract a disease and die or to prevent a disease and live?”

A conservative Roman Catholic who has not been to Africa or other parts of the world similar to Africa may not appreciate the tone of this argument. Still he is not likely to read further if he has not been privileged to know what it means to be poor or ignorant. An Italian friend once told me a story of his poverty. The story at the end of the day left me wondering if his mental state is okay. I was very much miffed because this is a young man who lives in a two-bedroom flat in the centre of Rome with a nice small car and has been touring the world each summer since the last four years. At the time of this conversation, he was 26, had a degree in Architecture and still has got a very bright future ahead of him; yet he claimed to be poor. I was a little offended because that statement was made in a midst of a very serious conversation. Well at the end of the day I concluded that this young man needed to take a vacation to Africa to see what the other side of the world is like. His idea of poverty is completely naive and I am sure that this also the case with many other Europeans and Americans who have not been to Africa. In fact if that is what poverty is all about I pray the Lord to bless Africa with more poverty.

My argument is not actually that Africa is poor as such. Africa has a lot of natural, manmade and intellectual resources to play a leading role in the comity of nations but as a result of injustice being condoned by the west, Africa may not enjoy in the next one thousand years what Europeans and Americans are taking for granted today. For instance, all the money looted from the commonwealth of my country Nigeria by our corrupt politicians past and present including the former President Olusegun Obasanjo and his fellow crooks are either in Swiss banks or in form of tangible assets in other European and American cities. As a result of this wanton looting of the commonwealth, Africa today has an unenviable record of being the world poorest continent with a huge population of the poorest of the poor and illiterates. From this picture it could be appreciated how African problems including health issues, terrorism, wars, conflicts and the likes are intertwined with poverty and illiteracy. It can only take a visit to understand this scenario well.

Therefore if the proposed instruction fails to take into consideration the African background and the role she plays in the 21st century Roman Catholic Church, it may end up being a decoy to ridicule the poor Africans. The possibility of not including African consultants in the framing of this instruction is very likely since most Vatican polices in the past have always been Ameri-Eurocentric in outlook with little or less contributions from Africa. This becomes very sad when one considers the fact that Africa today has if not the highest population of active Roman Catholics, the second largest in the world. I am also very much afraid that the Vatican might have been infected with this attitude of nothing good coming out of Africa; and therefore consulting them for their contributions may not be important.

The present Vatican stand on the prohibition of condom as a lesser evil in the fight against the virus is based on a 1968 document ‘Humanae Vitae’ issued by the papacy of Pope Paul VI. When the document was issued there was nothing like HIV or AIDS, therefore the document had no HIV and AIDS in mind in the first place. The crux of the document is that the essence of marital sex is procreation and any use of sexual device which impedes that goal of procreation, is immoral and therefore a sin. Good! But we are today talking about saving and prolonging that life.

When ‘Humanae Vitae’ was issued, there was no reported case of HIV and AIDS and I am certain that little or no African consultation was deemed necessary before the promulgation of the encyclical otherwise the Africa experts would have advised on the over technicality of the document and why it may not work in Africa. I have not also stopped wondering if that highly academic document is meant to instruct my illiterate parents, brothers and sisters back home in my poor small village in Nigeria. Having lived in Europe for quite some time now, I have no doubt that most Europeans are not just ignorant of what happens in Africa but lacks even the simplest basic fact about the continent. Sarah Pallin, former Republican vice Presidential candidate thought that Africa is a country.

Nigeria may be an exception to this argument because of our luck in having a reasonable number of educated citizens as well as families who live a little above poverty level. In fact about 60% of our about 145 million population live below poverty level. But then the twin issues of HIV and AIDS have not been very fair to us. Today with more than 3.5 million people living with the virus, we have the third highest rate of the virus after South Africa and India. These three countries have also noticed in the last few years the continuous depletion of its active population especially those between the ages of 18 and 45 and consequently the leaving behind of huge army of orphans with the virus as witnessed in countries like South Africa, Uganda and Botswana and of course Nigeria and India. In these countries, it is now a case of grandparents taking care of their HIV and AIDS infected grandchildren.

That is actually not the most pathetic part of the story. The most pathetic side is that these grandparents do not have the strength and the money to feed their hungry grandchildren; as a result they die by instalment of hunger and complications associated with these viruses. Let us not talk about the life saving Antiretroviral Therapy because it will expose a lot of corruption in the African health system. As of October 2005 out of about 3.5 million Nigerians who are living with the virus, it was only about 10,000 that were benefiting from the Federal Government sponsored Antiretroviral Therapy Programme. The Government had an ambition to raise it to 150,000 by June of the following year but the fact is that it is only the rich and those connected to the rich that have access to these drugs thereby leaving thousands of the poor masses behind. Due to the ignorance and low literacy level of the poor masses the cycle of transmission continues spreading, sparing nobody not even the riches who depend on the poor for their sexual gratifications in exchange for money, employment and other gratifications.

It is therefore completely unacceptable for one to stay in the Vatican and issue a highly academic instruction to poor dying souls in remote villages in Africa. This would not only be considered funny but highly offensive to Africans. It would not only tantamount to not appreciating our sufferings and plights but also ridiculing and scorning us while we suffer and die. Christ who refused to endorse the stoning to death of a woman caught in adultery and forgave those who killed Him would certainly have not kept Africans in a very difficult situation like this if He were still alive. I have the impression that the Vatican at the moment is busy debating over a cup of coffee while people are dying elsewhere. It could be very dangerous placing the faithful on a very high moral pedestal. May be it was because of this that Christ forewarned that we should first remove the log of wood in our eyes before looking for a speck in that of our neighbours.

Being a former health journalist with the Guardian Newspapers of Nigeria, I was opportuned to have almost a two year non-stop contact and interaction with people living with the virus especially women and children. Most women I met and spoke with told me that they contracted the virus from their husbands. Africa is a very patriarchal society and as a result women have little or no say in the family not even on issues that revolves around them including sex. They cannot negotiate sex with their husbands. To refuse your husband sex is considered highly offensive. In most African cultures, men do not sin and therefore a man having an extra-marital affair is considered normal while a woman could be publicly disgraced or even stoned to death for the same offence. This is just a little picture of how most women get the virus from their husbands. It is also how some women infect their husbands. However, it should also be noted that even though these women are aware that their husbands are already infected and that this situation could endanger their own lives and that of their children, due to societal pressure and culture they are forced to continue to fulfil their marital obligation by ensuring that their husbands are supplied with sex whenever and wherever he needs it.

Under this difficult situation the stand of the church is that they must not use condom otherwise it is a mortal sin. This has left many women in a dilemma and a very difficult situation. They are left with no option at all and for them to remain good and loyal Roman Catholics they must remain subjects to their infected partners.

I have been wondering what manner of love would make a woman to subject herself to her infected husband to the detriment of their children. That is not love; it is utter stupidity. I personally believe and think that what would be the right thing to do under this circumstance is for the partners to enter into an agreement that will put an end to sex within that marriage. A sexless marriage. But since this idea sounds angelic and utopian, I strongly believe that something must be done to save that marriage and protect those lives. It is therefore based on this ground that I strongly believe that the use of condom by the partners justifies itself as a lesser evil. Though some quarters are of the opinion that condom may not be highly effective in halting the spread of these viruses but experts are of the opinion that if well used condom could protect the transmission of STDs, HIV and AIDS to a reasonable extent. Couples therefore should be allowed to make a choice in this case and the Vatican could be of immense help by not placing a very big obstacle to this choice. A man who has never married, I mean a celibate, may not be competent to talk on this issue.

For that reason, the Vatican while still preparing this document should endeavour to let it have a human face and a realistic tone. If it sounds too utopian and angelic, it would put us in a very difficult situation and add to our already heavy burden. It may also force most Roman Catholics in Africa to follow their conscience especially at this difficult and trying time they are faced with only two options; life or death. As an African who has seen a lot of friends succumb to the viruses, I have no doubt that we are likely to choose life if the church refuses us that precious option of life. It is stupid and unreasonable for us to join in a dance step of a song we do not know its tune.

And what would the Roman Catholic Church gain if tomorrow our pastors open the church to see empty pews because we have all died of the viruses. God forbid we should get to that stage but even if we must get there the church should make hay while the sun shines. She must place herself under a moral obligation to act fast to save our lives and the church of tomorrow.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Tolerance, Respect And Accommodation: My Birthday Reflections!

Today is my birthday and incidentally the birthday of the Republic of Ghana. I think it would be a good idea for Ghana to make me an Honorary Citizen, a Goodwill Ambassador, an Ambassador-at-Large or even an Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary. What do you think about that? Am sure it is a good idea! You can stop laughing now. I am so thrilled and excited to be celebrating my birthday today. The fact that I am alive today to celebrate yet another birthday is interesting in itself. But then, when I realise that the meaning of birthday is getting old I become agitated because I do not want to get old; I want to be eternally young, maybe like Benjamin Button and do things young people do including youthful pranks. My birthday in particular brings a lot of anxiety to me. The brutality of coming to terms with the fact that my birthday is a reminder that I am getting old could be horrendous. Culturally, amongst the Igbos of the Southeast of Nigeria, old age is a blessing. To live long is what everybody prays for and the Igbos in particular considers it a bad omen to die at a tender age. Every Igbo man or woman is expected to live well beyond his parents and bury them and not the other way round. It is a taboo for parents to bury their children in Igboland. Am sure this is also applicable to many cultures in the world.

But the fact that birthday is a reminder that we are gradually moving into that phase of life where we would be depending more on people, makes the whole idea of birthday so scary; just like scary movies. Getting old comes with anxiety. The fear of not knowing the condition we would find ourselves in is the main source of the anxiety. The fear that our kids might not be there is another source and the fact that old age comes with a lot of incapacitations is the primary source of anxiety related to old age. I am not immuned to these anxieties; in fact today am scared even though it is supposed to be a day of merriment. But the fact is that this day would always come up yearly to remind me rudely of that fact; the fact of aging. Aging as I noted at the outset is one thing people are always afraid of at all times, probably due to anxiety and insecurity of what tomorrow would bring. People get shivers about their age and to make things easier for themselves, they shroud their age with utmost secrecy. This is exactly why people would not want to discuss it openly or let others know their age. We prefer keeping it as a top secret probably because not making our age known or keeping it a secret makes us feel younger. But, does age really matter? People should be allowed to claim to be as young as they would want to be and I mean it.

I am strongly in favour of this opinion and identify myself staunchly with this school of thought. As far as am concerned age is just a number. Age is usually not written on one’s face and if that is true why then should we be bothered with the aging process. You cannot look at one’s face and predict accurately their age. While some may look younger than their age, others look older than their age: I think I prefer the former. There are even some who look ageless. To most people age is a thing of the mind and actually in the eyes of the beholder. I might choose to be as young or as old as I would want to be and that should be my business. It becomes a public business when it is legally required of me to give my age and in deference to the law it must be given without any form of deception.

It is therefore, with a heart filled with anxiety and an air of mixed feeling, that I am sharing this birthday reflections with you. Yes, today is my birthday anniversary. As I noted at the outset, I am so excited and at same time have some reservations about it. Am excited because it is one of those days you are remembered in a very special way and sent not only good wishes and good health but also gifts. As am writing this reflection, my facebook page is already filled up with birthday wishes from men and women of goodwill. By this time last year I had same birthday in a very quiet and solemn mood to reflect on my life. Nobody was invited. It was a nice opportunity for me to reflect on the life I have been living and what lies ahead of me. I celebrated the day in Birmingham in the Midlands of the United Kingdom. This year I am in my house in London to celebrate it; do not get me wrong, there is no fanfare just me alone in a very quiet and calm mood. I think I like that way.

A lot has happened since my last reflection about a year ago. New friends were made while others rejected me probably because of my belief, views or ideology which they are yet to come to terms with. I have a very deep respect for them but bearing in mind that friendship has got more to do with what Latin scholars called ‘Ejus Dem Generis’ which in English could be translated as birds of same feathers flock together, I really need to move on. If friends do not share anything in common, it is cool if they come to agreement to accommodate each other otherwise the best solution would be for them to fall apart and follow with passion their different opinions, views and ideologies in life.

I value my friends especially those who do not share the same views about life with me. We must not belong to the same school of thought and that is one good thing about life. Everyman is free to obey his conscience and stick to his opinion so far it is not cynical and antithetical to the right of other men to pursue happiness. The greatest thing that has ever happened to mankind is the ‘discovery’ of democracy. Democracy warrants that we respect and accommodate other people’s view and opinion and that is why even though I do not accept their opinion and understanding of what life is all about, I still respect them and value their friendship. Often, we tend to reject our friends when they come up with extreme views but the fact is that we owe them an explanation on the reason why their views are not only outdated but also completely unacceptable under the present system. I have met friends who not knowing where I come from said to me that they have a deep-seated hatred and animosity towards Nigerians. But come to think of it, how can one person hate about 145 million people. What are the reasons for that hatred and animosity and if you really want to go into it the person who hates deserves help because it is a clear manifestation of insecurity and ignorance at the highest level. People like this are obviously not those we should ignore. We owe them a thorough lesson on what life is all about. War has its foundation on hatred and if hatred is allowed to grow, the consequence could be calamitous.

Forcing others to believe, follow our own way of life or behave the way we do is a mark of ignorance and the highest form of stupidity. Dialogue and not compulsion is the highest virtue. Compulsion is evil and if it is not checked it is likely to lead to tyranny, murder and wickedness. We have a duty to suffocate it by speaking against it instead of maintaining neutrality and silence. Every human being is unique in his or her own way and that is why no two human beings have exactly the same finger prints, not even identical twins. This is a principle I cherish a lot and it is because of this love for this principle that I have dedicated these couple of years to disseminating the gospel of moderation, acceptance, dialogue, tolerance, respect and accommodation. Moderation is a virtue, a sign of wisdom and intelligence while extremism is a manifestation of the highest form of ignorance, insecurity, blind faith and doubt in whatever the person guilty of it believes in. Extremist views are very dangerous and could have a negative social impact. One man’s cynical view is likely to have a negative implication on the whole population. People like Hitler and Osama Bin Laden and many like them began this way. They nurtured their hatred for other people from day one and waited for an opportunity to unleash their venom of hatred on their victims. Hitler’s hatred for the Jews was not an evil plotted in one day. It was an idea he nurtured probably from a very young age and grew up with it. It was always in his mind. What he needed was to wait for the right time to unleash it and the time came when he became the German leader and he killed nearly 6 million Jews as well as gypsies, homosexuals and the handicapped. War, animosity, bigotry and hatred begin from the heart.

I have in the past couple of years met many people especially through the Facebook who openly told me of their hatred for a certain way of life. A friend told me of his hatred for gays, lesbians and bisexuals and his willingness and readiness to be the first to stone them to death. Another told me of his intention to legalise abortion if he becomes the Prime Minister of his country. Another told me of his intention to introduce the Sharia legal system in the United Kingdom while another told me of his heart desire to ensure that Islam is banned in the United Kingdom. All these are views coming from human beings like you and me. Whenever am confronted with situations like these, the first step becomes the art of persuasion to convince them to drop such views. This I do by pointing out the negative impact such obnoxious views could have on them and on the people if they happen to become leaders. Sometimes I have to undergo a very thorough academic research and lucubration to convince them into dropping these views. Some would eventually drop them while others out of ego would continue holding tenaciously on to it like an ignorant mule or a silly ewe. Those holding on tenaciously to negative views like this without any hope of being reformed are not worthy to be called friends. Friends are people you share many things in common with.

Therefore, as am celebrating my birthday again, it is important to revisit this issue once more. The fundamental human right to opinion is one of the rights I personally cherish a lot. To me this right is not only inalienable, it also sacred. Man is a thinking being whose existence is made meaningful due to his ability to think. ‘Cogito ergo sum’, a Latin phrase popularised by René Descartes summarised the whole concept aptly. Man exists because he thinks and he thinks because he exists. The right to opinion should be protected and guaranteed and any attempt to stifle this right should be seriously fought against. Democracy is democracy simply because people’s right to air their opinion is not only guaranteed but also respected. The right to opinion is one of the main foundations of democracy. It is a freedom that goes in pari passu with the right to the freedom of conscience and speech. In fact the right to the freedom of conscience and speech are parented by the right to the freedom of opinion. The freedom of press in democratic countries is as a result of their deep understanding and respect for the sacredness of the freedoms of conscience, speech and opinion.

Consequent on this argument, the people’s right to hold and express their own opinion should be respected as a sacred right. Accommodation and respect demand that we respect their views and opinions about life. We cannot and should not impose our opinion on others; no matter how strong we think they are. Imposition of an opinion on others by compulsion is a sign of immaturity, naivety, bigotry and pride. We are only allowed to use the two instruments of dialogue and persuasion to effect opinion change especially when the opinion that needs to be changed does not conform to common sense, democracy, the common good and the welfare of the people. The arts of persuasion and dialogue are virtues worthy of emulation; however we should not hesitate to call in the law enforcement officers if the negative views in question are getting out of hand. Failure to do so could lead to something more dangerous, one of them being production of another Hitler or Osama Bin Laden. Meanwhile, the right to hold and air our opinion does not give us the right or the freedom to disrespect others. A person who holds a view that gays, lesbians and bisexuals should be murdered, should be reminded that in as much as his right to hold and air his opinion is guaranteed under the law, he is not allowed to promote hatred against other people as a result of their way of life which is also guaranteed under the law. That same right does not give a white man the right to call a black model a golliwog or address blacks as nigger neither does it give a licence to a black man to call an Asian a Paki, Sooty or chinco or even call a white man, a whitey or any other derogatory terms.

It is therefore pertinent for me to use this occasion to remind my friends what I believe in. I am a product of a new generation and a new school of thought and would never ever condone any form of intolerance. I value my friends so much, but inasmuch as I do value them so much, am very willing and ready to drop my friends who do not passionately share this way of understanding life with me. The essence of life is hinged upon respect, tolerance and accommodation of other people’s views. I would be a liar to still have friends who do not share these views with me especially those I have made every effort to convert to the kingdom of moderation. Respect, tolerance and accommodation are virtues that are next to godliness. With them we could achieve an everlasting peace in the world.

People kill because they hate and people hate because they refused to tolerate, accommodate or respect others. Bearing this in mind then, what good are we doing to ourselves if we continue to support those friends who do not want to share these golden principles of existence with us? We are simply not doing ourselves any good because our friends are among those who kill people, who stone people to death, who hang people, who hate people, who do not accommodate, respect or tolerate other people and their views. What a disaster that despite all the lessons we have learnt from the story of slavery, apartheid, wars and invasions, we still find it difficult to say no to evil and be on the side of peace and goodness. Pacem et Bonum!

As a result of what I have said above, I have decided never to keep silent or remain neutral when people are suffering. Keeping silent or remaining neutral does not help the victim. It actually empowers the oppressor. The mere fact that we keep silent in the face of the oppression adds energy to the wickedness of the oppressor. Speaking out is the only solution and that is the reason am begging you to join me as I celebrate my birthday to speak out against the evil of intolerance, disrespect and lack of accommodation.