Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 20:12 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 20:12 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: The Pope, HIV and Africa


Sam Roggeveen


19 March 2009 15:29

From an agnostic reader:

Bill Bowtell's post doesn't cast much light on the HIV/condoms debate. As the past day or two have shown, to disparage the Pope and blame the spread of AIDS in Africa on the Vatican is dead easy. But can an objective person make a strong case that the Vatican's views on condoms are directly implicated in the spread of HIV? The evidence, and common sense, suggest not.

First, the highest rates of infection in sub-Saharan Africa are in largely Protestant or animist countries where, presumably, religious leaders don't discourage the use of condoms. In Botswana, for example, where the adult HIV infection rate is a staggering 24%, the population is 62% Protestant and only 5% Catholic. In both Zimbabwe and South Africa, HIV prevalence is 20%, but each country is just 7% Catholic. In contrast, those countries with big Catholic populations tend to have a lower HIV prevalence:

  • Burundi: 62% Catholic, HIV prevalence of 6%
  • DR Congo: 50% Catholic, HIV prevalence of 4%
  • Uganda: 41% Catholic, HIV prevalence of 6%
  • Angola: 38% Catholic, HIV prevalence of 3%.

Of course it would be great to have infection rates broken down by religious affiliation, but I couldn't find any such data. Country aggregates seem to be a reasonable proxy, though.

There are many criss-crossing, influential variables unrelated to religion — not the least being differing tribal practices and cultural norms — that might mitigate the spread of HIV in Angola, Burundi and other largely Catholic countries. There may also be factors beyond religion having the reverse effect in Botswana, South Africa et al. But if Bowtell and many like him want to pin full blame for high HIV infection rates on the single variable of the Pope's edict on condoms, they had better produce supporting data. As far as I can tell, it doesn't exist.

Second, there's a logical inconsistency in the criticism of the Pope on HIV and condoms. Bowtell's argumentation depends on African Catholics displaying a startlingly selective obedience to church teaching, all during the same sexual encounter. To accept Bowtell's argument, you have to believe that an African Catholic would consciously disobey the church's teachings on pre-marital sex and marital fidelity while simultaneously piously rejecting the use of condoms. Common sense suggests that those who disobey the church on abstinence and fidelity would also not care much about the use or not of condoms, in which case the Pope's views are irrelevant.