One cartoon showed Pope Benedict on a charger attacking a giant killer condom with his staff.
Another had a large condom as the banana peel on his elegant Italian shoe.
And a London Times cartoon showing the Pope with a large condom hat pierced by a hatpin drew an angry response from Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor.
The Washington Post got heat for its March 21 cartoon showing the Pope in an AIDS ward blessing the sick because they did not use condoms.
I came across all these cartoons while searching for one that appeared in the French newspaper Le Monde. It showed the Pope speaking to a group of African leaders, the word corruption forming in his mouth; his listeners' response was that he should stick to condoms.
The Le Monde image highlights the dual narratives of the Papal visit to Cameroon and Angola--one story inspired (or consumed) by condoms, the other by Africa, its estimated 130 million Catholics, and the host of issues the visit addressed: women's roles, witchcraft, corruption, greed, war and peace, health and education.
When I wrote about the AIDS wars last year, I was aghast at the anger and nastiness surrounding the issue, and especially condoms. That rage is fully on display in the current controversy, epitomized in the cartoons.
Even the Vatican's most ardent admirers have to wonder how the Pope's communications team could have allowed his comments about condoms on the papal plane en route to Africa to convey such an insensitive image - little compassion expressed, no appreciation for the complexities of human sexuality, nary a nod to the 2 million children who live short painful lives with HIV and AIDS, or to the young girls forced into sex with infected older men.
An outraged response from the community that cares about HIV/AIDS was the predictable result. (I shudder at the coming reaction to reports that a French bishop pontificated again about the silly hypothesis that the virus can pass through the pores of condoms.)
This is a story of a tragic missed opportunity, because it just reinforces the views of many in the development community that the Church is out of touch (even as Catholic groups perform extraordinary work in AIDS programs.) Many Catholics and their friends had hoped for a more nuanced Vatican view.
The condom diversion overshadowed the huge excitement and huge crowds (a million in Angola) generated by the Pope's visit. His speeches were far-ranging , and contained much wisdom and courage. Especially important were his comments on the evils of corruption. The story could have been about a dynamic, diverse, complex Church, growing and working towards an African pluralism whose lines are still taking shape. That narrative would highlight the importance of religion and how it links to every facet of Africa's challenges, tragedies, and hopes.
The condom controversy won't go away and it should not. While no group maintains that condoms are the whole answer, most agree that they are a key part of the arsenal.
But the Le Monde cartoon highlights the way the condom debate took over a story that was far bigger and more important than pieces of latex. The papal visit was a chance for us to focus on Africa from a different angle. Condom wars muddied the messages about fighting corruption and witchcraft, addressing gender issues, and working more aggressively for peace.It's taken far too long to put Africa's HIV/AIDS pandemic high on the world's agenda.
The condom wars are only a distraction that gets in the way of meaningful action - on AIDS as well as the continent's other problems.
Time to shift the agenda. +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
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