Sunday, November 28, 2010

A different kind of morality

Pope Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, has had a troubled tenure since taking on the most important job in the Catholic Church. 

The successor to the late John Paul II, a man whose compassionate spirit won over even many disinterested observers, Pope Benedict was expected to be no more than a safe pair of hands when he assumed the role five years ago - a relatively conservative appointment designed to achieve a smooth succession of power.

The reality has been somewhat different. Pope Benedict's papacy has been characterised by crisis rather than consensus, his public utterances often marking him out as an elder statesman lost in the unfamiliar landscape of modern society (he was 83 in April).

He provoked the ire of the Muslim world in 2006 when he described Islam as "evil and inhuman". 

He has struggled with the complexities of a child-sex-abuse scandal that has refused to disappear. 

Meanwhile his decision to reverse the excommunication of a senior bishop who also happened to be a prominent Holocaust apologist raised hackles around the globe.

Then there was his African moment. 

On a state visit to Cameroon last year, Pope Benedict maintained that distributing condoms might actually "aggravate the problem" of HIV infection by promoting promiscuity.

This announcement seemed counterintuitive at best - infection rates for a disease most commonly spread by unprotected sex are running at more than 40 per cent in parts of southern Africa - even if it was toeing a line previously drawn by John Paul II, who described contraception as "intrinsically evil".

All of which makes Pope Benedict's most recent pronouncements appear hugely significant. 

"There may be individual cases, for example, when a male prostitute uses a condom," he said in an interview conducted in German by Peter Seewald, "where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralisation, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way towards recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants." 

When Seewald asked if this effectively represented an end to his opposition to this form of birth control, he answered simply that "this is a movement towards a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality".

This is an important concession, even if it seems qualified. 

The example the Pope gave seems only tenuously connected to the question of contraception in the strict sense. 

Moreover, this type of sex worker is almost non-existent in Africa, which is where a volte-face on Catholic contraception policy could bring the greatest health benefits. 

Nevertheless, Pope Benedict might have reasonably expected to secure a rare public-relations victory.

Instead, he found himself under fire from those who felt his comments lacked detail.

Eyob Ghebre-Sellassie, founder of African Aids Action, insisted: "Aids is killing many heterosexual women in Africa... we need the Pope to be specific about women." 

Ute Stallmeister, a spokesperson for the German Foundation for World Population, an organisation that works extensively with Aids victims in Africa, said "the problem is so big that many people already realise that something needs to be done... I don't think the Pope's statement will cause great changes."

Stallmeister is right in the sense that Pope Benedict's comments appeared long after the Aids virus had irreparably damaged the social and cultural wellbeing of Africa, and, in truth, decades after it had been established that contraception helped keep infection rates in check.

On the other hand, Roman Catholicism is on the increase in Africa, especially in the worst-affected countries in the south. 

There are now around 158 million African Catholics, and it is predicted that this figure could grow by almost half in the next 15 years. 

The significance of the Pope's line on contraception will only increase in the years to come. 

This concession, though small, is an important start.