Benedict in Benin, on AIDS

Speaking in Benin, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a talk concerning the AIDS epidemic. (John Allen's report here.) Money quote:

The problem of AIDS, in particular, clearly calls for a medical and pharmaceutical response. This is not enough, however: the problem goes deeper. Above all, it is an ethical problem. The change of behavior that it requires for example, sexual abstinence, rejection of sexual promiscuity, fidelity within marriage ultimately involves the question of integral development, which demands a global approach and a global response from the church. For if it is to be effective, the prevention of AIDS must be based on a sex education that is itself grounded in an anthropology anchored in the natural law and enlightened by the word of God and the churchs teaching.

There are a number of notable things about the quotation, (I can't find the entire document, so please correct me if I interpret out of context.)1. AIDS is an ethical problem that involves individual behavior, but that defaults to social structures ultimately. The Pope is absolutely on target here. AIDS is not reducible to "boys [and girls] behaving badly," but is closely tied to social factors like grinding poverty, endemic sexism, lack of education, and, in some situations, governmental corruption that impedes effective delivery of aid. So lack of integral development is the background noise that enables the virus to get a foothold in the first place, and makes it tough to eradicate. (NB: Benin is not especially hard-hit by AIDS in comparison to some other African nations, with an overall prevalence of 1.2% Compare Botswana and Swaziland at about 25%, and the US at about 0.3% The rate of HIV in some high-risk populations in Benin goes as high as 44.7%.) Poverty? Oh, yes. Benin's GDP per capita is 198th in the world. Sexism? You bet. Benin is ranked at 7th worst in the world by the World Economic Forum. Illiteracy? Here the gender gap exacerbates an already wretched situation. Literacy in 2002 was 47.9% for men, and only 23.3% for women. So Benin is a poster-child of structural injustice corroding society.2. Sex education anchored in natural law, enlightened by the Gospel. There are many interpretations about the actual details of such an educational program, but across the Catholic ideological spectrum there are folks arguing for a natural law approach enlightened by the Gospel. Natural law is ultimately a rational argument about the good life for human beings, and the actions or virtues that constitute that good life. Of course, as the Pope said in the previous sentence, really it's basically a matter of social structures of injustice. His call for chastity is hard to hear in the chaos of poverty and illiteracy, and impossible for disempowered women to achieve for themselves. For women, it's just not possible to take control of one's sexual life under conditions of such structural evil. So, sure, on the sex ed, but let's not take our eyes off the basic problems here. 3. He deemphasizes the condom question. I would infer (optimistically, perhaps,) that "medical and pharmaceutical interventions" would include access to condoms to prevent spread of disease. It just stands to reason. Myself, I'd prefer that he'd just come out clearly in favor of condoms for disease prophylaxis. But what I want to praise here is that the Pope didn't reduce the problem of AIDS to the question of condoms. Absent real attention to poverty, sexism, and illiteracy, all the condoms in the world won't stop the disease. Better to let that question be settled prudentially, (and then to respect the experts' strongly pro-condom stance,) than to let people think that AIDS is reducible to "yes or no on condoms?"As far as I can tell, the Pope doesn't actually address sexism in this address. (The Church would have to empower women in its own ranks before the Church's social-justice calls for empowerment of women in broader society will be heard. Again, it just stands to reason.) But the framing of AIDS in terms of the social sins that drive the pandemic, demanding a global response? I say "Way to go!"

Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).

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