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.

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