Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The Pope May Be Right - article by Edward C. Green

The Washington Post Sunday, March 29, 2009; Page A15

When Pope Benedict XVI commented this month that condom distribution isn't helping, and may be worsening, the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa, he set off a firestorm of protest. Most non-Catholic commentary has been highly critical of the pope. A cartoon in the Philadelphia Inquirer, reprinted in The Post, showed the pope somewhat ghoulishly praising a throng of sick and dying Africans: "Blessed are the sick, for they have not used condoms."

Yet, in truth, current empirical evidence supports him.

We liberals who work in the fields of global HIV/AIDS and family planning take terrible professional risks if we side with the pope on a divisive topic such as this. The condom has become a symbol of freedom and -- along with contraception -- female emancipation, so those who question condom orthodoxy are accused of being against these causes. My comments are only about the question of condoms working to stem the spread of AIDS in Africa's generalized epidemics -- nowhere else.

In 2003, Norman Hearst and Sanny Chen of the University of California conducted a condom effectiveness study for the United Nations' AIDS program and found no evidence of condoms working as a primary HIV-prevention measure in Africa. UNAIDS quietly disowned the study. (The authors eventually managed to publish their findings in the quarterly Studies in Family Planning.) Since then, major articles in other peer-reviewed journals such as the Lancet, Science and BMJ have confirmed that condoms have not worked as a primary intervention in the population-wide epidemics of Africa. In a 2008 article in Science called "Reassessing HIV Prevention" 10 AIDS experts concluded that "consistent condom use has not reached a sufficiently high level, even after many years of widespread and often aggressive promotion, to produce a measurable slowing of new infections in the generalized epidemics of Sub-Saharan Africa."

Let me quickly add that condom promotion has worked in countries such as Thailand and Cambodia, where most HIV is transmitted through commercial sex and where it has been possible to enforce a 100 percent condom use policy in brothels (but not outside of them). In theory, condom promotions ought to work everywhere. And intuitively, some condom use ought to be better than no use. But that's not what the research in Africa shows.

Why not?

One reason is "risk compensation." That is, when people think they're made safe by using condoms at least some of the time, they actually engage in riskier sex.

Another factor is that people seldom use condoms in steady relationships because doing so would imply a lack of trust. (And if condom use rates go up, it's possible we are seeing an increase of casual or commercial sex.) However, it's those ongoing relationships that drive Africa's worst epidemics. In these, most HIV infections are found in general populations, not in high-risk groups such as sex workers, gay men or persons who inject drugs. And in significant proportions of African populations, people have two or more regular sex partners who overlap in time. In Botswana, which has one of the world's highest HIV rates, 43 percent of men and 17 percent of women surveyed had two or more regular sex partners in the previous year.

These ongoing multiple concurrent sex partnerships resemble a giant, invisible web of relationships through which HIV/AIDS spreads. A study in Malawi showed that even though the average number of sexual partners was only slightly over two, fully two-thirds of this population was interconnected through such networks of overlapping, ongoing relationships.

So what has worked in Africa? Strategies that break up these multiple and concurrent sexual networks -- or, in plain language, faithful mutual monogamy or at least reduction in numbers of partners, especially concurrent ones. "Closed" or faithful polygamy can work as well.

In Uganda's early, largely home-grown AIDS program, which began in 1986, the focus was on "Sticking to One Partner" or "Zero Grazing" (which meant remaining faithful within a polygamous marriage) and "Loving Faithfully." These simple messages worked. More recently, the two countries with the highest HIV infection rates, Swaziland and Botswana, have both launched campaigns that discourage people from having multiple and concurrent sexual partners.

Don't misunderstand me; I am not anti-condom. All people should have full access to condoms, and condoms should always be a backup strategy for those who will not or cannot remain in a mutually faithful relationship. This was a key point in a 2004 "consensus statement" published and endorsed by some 150 global AIDS experts, including representatives the United Nations, World Health Organization and World Bank. These experts also affirmed that for sexually active adults, the first priority should be to promote mutual fidelity. Moreover, liberals and conservatives agree that condoms cannot address challenges that remain critical in Africa such as cross-generational sex, gender inequality and an end to domestic violence, rape and sexual coercion.

Surely it's time to start providing more evidence-based AIDS prevention in Africa.

The writer is a senior research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health.


Dr. Edward C. Green

Edward C. Green CV Director, AIDS Prevention Research Project

Senior Research Scientist, Harvard School of Public Health and Center for Population and Development Studies, Harvard University

Edward Green is an applied, medical anthropologist with 30 years of experience in developing countries in project design, implementation and evaluation, as well as in basic and operations research, social marketing, behavior change & communication (BCC), health education, and indigenous, non-Western medicine.

His sectoral experience includes AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, family planning, primary health care, maternal & child health, children affected by war, child nutrition, water and sanitation, environmental health, U.S. minority health, biodiversity and conservation, and cancer programs.

Edward Green is a specialist in integrating indigenous and "modern" health systems. He has served as team leader on numerous USAID project designs and evaluations.

Author of five books, editor of one book and author of over 250 peer-reviewed journal articles or book chapters, conference papers, or commissioned technical reports.


Edward Green - Aids expert who defended the Pope

Aids expert who defended the Pope says Harvard University is ending his research project

* 29 Mar 09, 08:14 AM

Dr Edward Green, director of Harvard's HIV Prevention Research Project, who came to the defence of Pope Benedict during last week's international row over condoms in Africa, says Harvard University has ended his research program.

In an extended interview on today's Sunday Sequence, Dr Green told me why he decided to voice his support to Pope Benedict's controversial claim that condom distribution is exacerbating the problem of Aids in Africa. He also challenges the scientific authority of the United Nations Aids organisation, and argues that condoms should be used in Africa as part of a combination strategy to combat Aids. Dr Green says, "I have always been politically incorrect. I have always questioned authority and tried to speak truth to power whatever the consequences." A full transcript of the interview is below the line.

Edward Green: What the Pope said was the distribution and marketing of condoms would not solve the problem of African Aids and that it might even exacerbate the problem. And I think it was that second comment that really set the critics off, really upset a lot of people. I can understand that, because I have worked in Aids prevention for a long time. In fact, I worked as a condom and contraceptive social marketer at the beginning of the pandemic--I was working in family planning. I am part of a group of researchers that have been looking for the behavioural antecedents to HIV prevalence decline in Africa. We now see HIV going down in about 8 or 9 countries in Africa and in every case we see a decrease in the proportion of men and women who report having more than one sex partner in the past year. So when the Pope said that the answer really lies in monogamy and martial faithfulness, that's exactly what we found empirically.

William Crawley: What's the evidence that you are appealing to that condom distribution has made things worse in Africa?

Edward Green: Because we have for a number of years now found the wrong kind of association between condom-availability and levels of condom use.. You see the wrong kind of relationship with HIV prevalence. Instead of seeing this associated with lower HIV infection rates, it's actually associated with higher HIV infection rates. Part of that is because the people using condoms are the people who are having risky sex. It's just like there is more bed nets in use in countries with malaria than in countries without such high levels of malaria.

William Crawley: So it would be a mistake to draw any causal connection between an increase in the use of condoms and an increase in HIV prevalence. That would be a mistake, wouldn't it?

Edward Green: We don't have any proof. The closest thing we have are some prospective studies that follow the same populations. There was one where--Norman Hurst of the University of California was one of the authors, it was published in the journal Aids--where they followed two groups of young people in Uganda, and the group that had the intensive condom promotion--and they were provided condoms after three years--they actually were found to have a greater number of sex partners. So that cancels out the risk reduction that the technology of condoms ought to provide. That's the phenomenon known as risk compensation.

William Crawley: What do you mean by risk compensation?

Edward Green: This is when somebody uses a technology, such as condoms or sun-block, to reduce the risk, but then they compensate for that, or actually lose the risk reduction, by exposure to the sun longer in the case of sun-block or they take greater sexual risks in the case of condoms.

William Crawley: What you have suggested is that the use of condoms in Africa is a complicated story: it relates to abstinence and monogamy programmes as well. In those countries where there has been a reduction in HIV infection, such as Uganda, all three seem to play a part--abstinence, monogamy and the use of condoms. At least according to the United Nations Aids organisation (UNAids), all three play a part. Do you have any evidence at all that condoms are making the problem worse, which is what the Pope suggests?

Edward Green: Well I just mentioned a study that was done in Uganda that suggests that with intensive promotion of condoms you actually have people increasing the number of sexual partners, so in that sense--

William Crawley: But you have already accepted that there can be no causal inference drawn from that study.

Edward Green: Well, except that the phenomenon of risk compensation, or behavioural dis-inhibition, is real, and there have been articles, including published in The Lancet, about this phenomenon. So there could be a causal connection.

William Crawley: The Lancet has described the Pope's comments, which you agree with, as a distortion of scientific evidence.

Edward Green: That's because The Lancet is not thinking about the generalised epidemics of Africa. I hasten to add--and I have tried to do this in all of my interviews, although sometimes only part of my interviews are quoted--I point out that at national levels, we see condoms working in epidemics like those of Thailand and Cambodia. But in the generalised epidemics of Africa--well, there was a UN Aids study done in 2003 by Hearst and Chen, it was actually published in the peer-reviewed journal Studies in Family Planning in 2004, and they conclude that there is not a single country in Africa where HIV prevalence has come down primarily because of condoms.

William Crawley: You accept that condoms do work in other parts of the world, like the Western World, for example?

Edward Green: I do. And they should have a back-up role even in the generalised epidemics of Africa. I believe condoms should be made available to everyone. It should be, and as you say, the ABC strategy: Abstain, Be faithful, use a Condom. Condoms may well have contributed to the prevalence decline in Uganda.

William Crawley: That's a serious ideological difference between yourself and the Pope. He doesn't think that condoms should be used, even in the case of married Catholic couples where one of the partners is HIV-positive.

Edward Green: Yes, well, I don't agree with that. And, I have said that I am not a Catholic, and I am not talking about condoms in any sort of moral-ethical sense. I am talking about what has been found to work and not work. So, yes, the article I mentioned by Hearst and Chen is very clear that condoms work in certain types of situations and certain sub-populations and condoms have had a positive national impact in certain concentrated epidemics. So, yes, I don't agree with the Pope across the board.

William Crawley: Which brings us back to Africa. And to try to explain why there has been a mixed experience in terms of condom distribution in Africa, you are appealing to this possible mechanism of risk compensation. Which is another way of saying, really, that when people feel they are protected by a condom they engage is other risky behaviours. And one could say in response to that, this is not a criticism of condom distribution, it's a criticism of the education programmes that accompany condom distribution, surely?

Edward Green: Yes, we can say that. It's just I am somebody, who, as I mentioned I think, worked in family planning at the beginning--before the Aids pandemic began. And I think we have tried just about everything that can be tried as far as getting people to use condoms consistently and correctly in general populations. You know it's possible in certain sub-populations, such as commercial sex workers and their clients--even in Cambodia and Thailand, it was commercial sex workers in brothels where the 100 per cent condom policy was implemented and was so successful. But once you get outside of brothels are some situations where you have some control, it's again very difficult to get people to use condoms. So, yes, it's the fault of the person and not with the physical device the condom.

William Crawley: You can see why some people perhaps misunderstand your position, Dr Green, because you make a blunt statement like "the Pope is right about this" and "he is right on the science". And it is a much more complicated story once we explore it a little bit. You are encouraging the use of condoms in Africa. You are just saying: in addition to that, we should take seriously abstinence and, particularly, "be faithful" (monogamy) programmes, as well in Africa. That's a very different position to the one that the Pope holds to.

Edward Green: Well, you could phrase it that way. Or you could say: the Pope said that the distribution and marketing of condoms is not the solution or the best solution to African Aids; rather, it is monogamy and faithfulness. And the evidence is so clear about partner reduction. If you promote monogamy and faithfulness what you get is a reduction in the number of partners and concurrent partners. We haven't mentioned concurrency: we are finding that if you have partners, ongoing relationships that overlap, these are particularly effective in transmitting HIV. The evidence is so clear about that, that one of the reasons I stuck my neck out, knowing that I would get into a lot of trouble with my peers and colleagues, is because the Pope didn't repeat the usual condoms-versus-abstinence but instead mentioned fidelity and monogamy.

William Crawley: The United Nations Aids organisation says recent analysis of the Aids epidemic in Uganda confirms, and I am quoting, "that increased condom use in conjunction with delay in age and first sexual intercourse and reduction of sexual partners was an important factor in the decline of HIV prevalence in the 1990s". They say it was all three: ABC. The Pope says it was AB. And you seem to be agreeing with him.

Edward Green: Well, you must understand that UN Aids is not a scientific body. It's an advocacy body. And, in fact, a former director, Peter Piot, in recent years has been saying that what they do is "evidence-informed" rather that "evidence-based". If you stop and think about that distinction, you know, it suggests that UNAids draws upon the evidence that supports what it believes.

William Crawley: We shouldn't trust the UNAids organisation on this?

Edward Green: I would be very careful about trusting the UNAids organisation for anything scientific, anything having to do with, for example, statistics about Aids. They have had to back-pedal and retract a lot of their basic statistics. It may seem pretty shocking for somebody like me to disagree with UNAids, but the fact is that UNAids is changing its thinking on this matter. As a matter of fact, in a very few days, there is going to be joint statement released by our Harvard programme, the Southern Regional Office of UNAids, and the Southern Regional Office of the World Bank, saying that the primary intervention for Aids in Southern Africa should be to discourage multiple and concurrent partners and that condom promotion is a secondary backup strategy.

William Crawley: How can you believe that condom promotion should be a back up strategy and also believe that "condom distribution is making matters worse in Africa"?

Edward Green: Well, I wouldn't keep saying that way, I am--

William Crawley: That's what the pope said, and that's what you say you agree with--

Edward Green: Higher condom use and higher infection rates could be explained in a number of ways: we should be alert to the fact that one of those ways could be dis-inhibition. This has been sort of a taboo word in the field of Aids. We don't want to think that, possibly, we are making the situation worse by giving people a greater sense of security than they ought to have. But, you know, we should think about that possibility.

William Crawley: But condoms are either making the problem worse in Africa, or they are a backup strategy, which is it?

Edward Green: Well, I would say that they should, again, be made available. They should be available as a backup strategy. It's obviously better to not indulge in a risk behaviour ... Lets go back to what we know about condoms: when they are used consistently, when they are used consistently, they provide, under more or less ideal conditions, about 80 to 85 per cent risk reduction, compared to those who don't use them at all. But how many--what percentage of any large national population--uses condoms consistently? Probably nowhere in excess of 5 per cent.

William Crawley: There does seem to be a world of a difference, Dr Green, between what you have just said, and the Pope's simple claim that condoms are aggravating the problem in Africa. Those two positions do not seem to be the same, and yet you say you agree with the Pope.

Edward Green: I told you that I stuck my neck out knowing it would be controversial, because the Pope said that the distribution of condoms was not the solution, that monogamy and fidelity was. It depends on how you look at condoms. Condoms, as a technology, can work in certain circumstances. Yes, they should be a backup if people are not going to avoid the risk altogether. But looking at it from a public health standpoint, we have not seen that condoms have worked at the population or national levels in Africa. So you can interpret that I suppose in different ways.

William Crawley: Let's come to the situation that your programme faces at Harvard University. You have said that you have managed to put yourself in some difficulties with some of your peers. What is the situation you are facing now at Harvard?

Edward Green: Well, before this most recent situation came up with my name being in the news a lot in connection with the Pope, our project was coming to an end, and actually has come to an end. We are running currently on a no-cost extension for another approximately 11 months.

William Crawley: So you regard your position on this as somehow "politically incorrect" over the years in terms of the politics of all of this?

Edward Green: Yes, my position is very politically incorrect. I have always been politically incorrect. I have always questioned authority and tried to speak truth to power whatever the consequences.

William Crawley: Are you are paying an institutional price for that in terms of Harvard?

Edward Green: Well, I don't know. I don't know whether our programme would have ended when it's ending if I had been more politically correct. You would have to ask Harvard.

* William Crawley


Book by Edward C. Green: Rethinking AIDS Prevention

Book by Edward C. Green: Rethinking AIDS Prevention: Learning from Successes in Developing Countries, by Edward C. Green (Praeger, 392 pp., $39.95)

Reviewed by Douglas A. Sylva

A few years ago the official in charge of UNICEF's eastern and southern African operations declared that, in the name of AIDS prevention, condoms should be made available "for everybody, everywhere and at all times." "Let us stop the almost metaphysical debate on the pros and cons of the use of condoms," he continued, because "the use of condoms . . . has been a part of all known successes to reduce HIV infections." Such is the philosophy of the international AIDS-prevention establishment: Only condoms can save the world from AIDS, so international funds should ensure that the people of the developing world are ever more securely swathed in latex.

There are, however, no condom "successes" in Africa. Something like 700 million condoms are shipped to the continent, year in and year out, courtesy of the U.N., the U.S., and the EU, yet infection rates remain stubbornly high. The UNICEF official approvingly cites Botswana's commitment to condoms — "Let us follow the decision of the government of Botswana" — but about 35 percent of that country's population is infected. That's the example the rest of the world should follow?

Whenever someone, usually an obscure African churchman, dares to raise such uncomfortable questions, the full might of the AIDS establishment comes down to smite him, and he is condemned as a religious zealot. Finally, though, there is a challenger to condom dominance who cannot be so easily dismissed. He is a distinguished public-health official, a paragon, in fact, of establishment credentials: Edward C. Green, senior research scientist at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. Green has had an epiphany of common sense and now has the courage to criticize the role of his colleagues as prophylactic missionaries to the Third World. In his important new book, Rethinking AIDS Prevention, he exposes the failure of the condom approach, and explains why AIDS experts cling to this failure.

What happened is that Green's colleagues inherited the ideology of the homosexual revolution of the 1980s. Green matter-of-factly states that "gay Westerners" tend to be "sexually hedonistic," that "some in the gay community believe in an 'anything goes' sexual expression that takes as a given that sexuality should be expressed and enjoyed to the utmost, and there be little or no worry about consequences." AIDS prevention was developed for gays, and in many cases by gays; thus, anything that challenged the sexual hedonism of homosexual identity would be out of bounds.

Green quotes at length from one American AIDS expert's web-posted paean to promiscuity: "Unlike gibbons and some other mammals, humans are not naturally monogamous. Some major religions make polypartnering (having sex with several partners) a sin in order to promote monogamy. However, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with polypartnering. Indeed, polypartnering allows participants to enjoy a greater variety of sexual behaviors, with a greater number of persons, to enhance their lovemaking skills." Monogamy, on the other hand, is as dreadful as if "religions were to dictate that it was morally wrong for people to eat out at different restaurants, requiring its adherents to stick to one restaurant for their entire lives; or to stick to one movie — seeing the same film over and over again."

Obviously, such people have a personal interest in ensuring that the basic lesson of the AIDS epidemic — promiscuous sex cannot be made consequence-free — never gets learned. As our "polypartnering" devotee makes clear, "we should not use the HIV/AIDS crisis as an excuse to revert back" to the bad old days of monogamy. And thus enters the lowly condom; it allows proponents of the sexual revolution to trumpet as "safe" risky sexual behavior.

AIDS experts will go to great lengths in order to protect condoms from scrutiny. According to Green, his colleagues have hidden evidence that the HIV virus may be smaller than, and therefore may pass through, the pores in latex condoms. And AIDS experts have denied evidence that traditional sexual morality works — that, where it has been promoted in place of condoms, most notably in Uganda, AIDS has been brought under control. Since risky sex causes AIDS, a significant number of Africans have simply stopped having risky sex. And when governments have encouraged them to do so, to abstain from sex or to be faithful to their spouses, this behavior change has been all the more dramatic.

But Green's colleagues are not interested, are even hostile, to such news. At the 2002 International AIDS Conference, writes Green, "high-ranking officials from major donor organizations were heard to opine that any such ideas were part of a plot from the religious right. Furthermore, they were heard to say, public health would never yield to right-wing or religious pressure (even if millions of lives could thereby be saved)." Green continues: "But what about Africans and others who believed that condoms were 100 percent effective, used them as directed, and then became infected? This is an ethical issue, a serious human-rights issue. The case could be made that health officials from rich countries have withheld information that would allow people in the poor countries to make an informed choice, a choice that has life or death consequences."

Green makes the reasonable request that African public-health measures should be designed with the best interests of Africans in mind; most especially, that the schoolchildren of Africa should not be handed a box of condoms, and subjected to a program designed for the clients of New York's gay bathhouses, but encouraged instead to delay sexual activity.


Harvard Research Proves the Pope (and God) Right

by Frank Pastore

When the pope visited Africa back in mid-March, a firestorm erupted when the media reported he had said “condoms spread AIDS.” Although the pope didn’t use those exact words, it was an accurate summary. Here’s what the pope did say:

I would say that this problem of AIDS cannot be overcome with advertising slogans. If the soul is lacking, if Africans do not help one another, the scourge cannot be resolved by distributing condoms; quite the contrary, we risk worsening the problem. The solution can only come through a twofold commitment: firstly, the humanization of sexuality, in other words a spiritual and human renewal bringing a new way of behaving towards one another; and secondly, true friendship, above all with those who are suffering, a readiness—even through personal sacrifice—to be present with those who suffer. And these are the factors that help and bring visible progress.

According to the pope, “the scourge [of AIDS] cannot be resolved by distributing condoms”—in fact, doing so “risk[s] worsening the problem.” Predictably, there was a cacophony of condemnation directed at the pope. And to give just one example, ACT UP, the gay activist group, labeled him “assassin,” and threw condemns at worshippers leaving service at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

I guess activists can’t help throwing condoms—either at those who oppose their policy, or at populations dying of AIDS in Africa and around the world.

Soon after the story broke, Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor of National Review Online, released an interview with Edward C. Green, director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. Here’s what Green had to say:

We have found no consistent associations between condom use and lower HIV-infection rates, which, 25 years into the pandemic, we should be seeing if this intervention was working.

The pope is correct, or put it a better way, the best evidence we have supports the pope’s comments. He stresses that condoms have been proven to not be effective at the level of population. There is a consistent association shown by our best studies, including the US-funded Demographic Health Surveys, between greater availability and use of condoms and higher (not lower) HIV-infection rates. This may be due in part to a phenomenon known as risk compensation, meaning that when one uses a risk-reduction technology such as condoms, one often loses the benefit (reduction in risk) by compensating or taking greater chances than one would take without the risk-reduction technology.

I also noticed that the pope said monogamy was the best single answer to African AIDS, rather than abstinence. The best and latest empirical evidence indeed shows that reduction in multiple and concurrent sexual partners is the most important single behavior change associated with reduction in HIV-infection rates (the other major factor is male circumcision).

So Harvard agrees with the pope: condoms spread AIDS!

Have you ever heard this before?—anywhere?

It’s hard to believe that there’s a classroom or newsroom in America where this has ever been discussed or broadcast.

Who knew that distributing condoms doesn’t lower the HIV-infection rate, it raises it?

I didn’t.

We were talking about this on my radio show the day the story broke, when I went to the next caller, “Rick in Santa Margarita”—who ended up being pastor Rick Warren from Saddleback, listening in on his way to a hospital visitation.

Rick shared that he’s friends with Ed Green, familiar with his research, and stays up to speed on the whole AIDS pandemic in Africa. No pastor in America has done more to fight AIDS in Africa than Rick Warren—and he went on to affirm everything Ed Green and the Pope said about condoms: passing out condoms promotes promiscuity, promiscuity increases risky behavior (i.e., “non-safe sex”), and non-safe sex spreads AIDS. Thus, “condoms spread AIDS.”

As Rick pointed out, the real question policy-makers must answer is whether they want to stop AIDS or merely slow it down. If they want to slow AIDS, then they’ll keep passing out condoms and teaching “safe sex.” But the problem is, we now know this isn’t true. Condom distribution doesn’t even slow the spread of AIDS, it actually speeds it up.

If they want to stop AIDS, then they’ll have to stop encouraging promiscuity and adultery and teach abstinence and monogamy.

This is why in Africa, where AIDS has already killed tens of millions, more and more countries are abandoning our Western strategy of condom distribution and replacing it with the strategy that actually does save lives.

Since it began teaching abstinence, Uganda has dropped its HIV infection rate from 30 percent down to 6 percent. Other countries have gotten the message.

The bottom line? God was right—again.

When He gave us the Commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” it wasn’t for His benefit, but ours.

If the world won’t hear His message, maybe they’ll hear the message coming out of Africa.


Monday, 30 March 2009

African Students Defend Benedict XVI

Protest Biased Media Coverage of Africa Trip

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 29, 2009 - Benedict XVI did not hide the joy he felt at seeing numerous young African students gathered today in St. Peter’s Square to thank him for the message of hope he brought to the continent.

Young men and women, some religious or seminarians, waving flags that represented various African countries, expressed their appreciation for the Pontiff's March 17-23 trip to Cameroon and Angola.

Led by Guinean Archbishop Robert Sarah, secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the students also gathered to show their solidarity with the Holy Father after he came under fire for saying that the distribution of condoms is not the solution for fighting AIDS.

"Dear friends, you wanted to come to manifest your joy for my apostolic trip to Africa," Benedict XVI told the students. "I thank you from my heart. I pray for you, for your families and your homelands."

The head of the Committee of African Students in Rome, Pierre Baba Mansare, explained to ZENIT that the event was organized after seeing the coverage of the Pope's visit in the media: “Of the Holy Father’s whole pastoral message, the Western media only focused on the statement about condoms with the purpose of starting a polemic.”

Real message

“[W]e decided to respond with a small demonstration of gratitude to the Holy Father for his lucid and objective diagnosis of the African reality, a diagnosis that the international community, a diagnosis that the international community, distracted by the media polemic, did not hear,” he explained.

Mansare added that the students wanted to send a message to the Western media: "Don’t talk about Africa without knowing the reality, trampling on its values!"

Another organizer, Mari Anne Mollo of Cameroon, told ZENIT that she was disappointed with the coverage of the Papal trip: "The mass media presented the ugly, suffering, disease-filled side of the continent. We had expected that they would talk about a beautiful, welcoming, lively, smiling Africa."

"Cameroon took two days of holiday to welcome the Pope," she said. "The journalists reduced the trip to [the statements] about condoms and ignored the Pontiff's [other] statements."

Mollo, who is a student at the Pontifical Gregorian University, also noted that her continent also faces other more fundamental challenges: "Africans don't just die from AIDS, but from other diseases too, due to a lack of hygiene. How can condoms be prioritized when the lack of other basics for survival is felt?"

"The massive promotion of condoms," she continued, "causes cultural, economic, moral impoverishment because it encourages people to engage in irresponsible behavior and it goes against our culture.

"Because of this we say 'no' to the disparagement of our culture and our traditions. We want to walk with Benedict XVI and follow the lines that he traced for our present and our future, and in this way write a new page."


Saturday, 28 March 2009

India's Bishops Make Appeal on Pope's Behalf

Call Recent Attacks "Irresponsible and Offensive"

NEW DELHI, MARCH 27, 2009 - India's bishops have called recent media attacks on Benedict XVI as "irresponsible," and appealed for more "respect" for the Pope.

In statement published Tuesday, the nation's episcopal conference called the Holy Father "one of the greatest intellectuals of modern times," and highlighted his lucidity on moral and social issues, reported the news agency Eglises d'Asie.

The attacks came earlier this month after the Holy Father said during a press conference on the plane en route to Cameroon that condoms are not the solution for AIDS.

Signed by Archbishop Stanislaus Fernandes of Gandhinagar, secretary-general of the conference, the note affirmed that Benedict XVI is "loved and respected by the entire world," and that the bishops judged the attacks to be "gravely irresponsible and offensive."

"He invites the whole world to go forward, with the Spirit of God, to build a society based on moral values and respect for life," the episcopal body continued. "This is the moral role of the Pope, to direct and guide consciences, the conscience of humanity in general and of Catholics in particular."

The Holy Father "is perfectly informed on the present tendencies that show the moral degradation of humanity," affirmed the statement.

The bishops' text ends by appealing to Catholics and non-Catholics to "beware of making ill-considered statements" against Benedict XVI, who "has always worked for peace, reconciliation, fraternity, unity and attention to the poorest and most abandoned."


Friday, 27 March 2009

Cameroon Bishops' Statement on AIDS

"The Holy Father Has Put Man at the Center of His Concern"

YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon, MARCH 26, 2009 - Here is a translation of the statement of the episcopal conference of Cameroon on the negative media response to Benedict XVI comments on the role of condoms in the fight against AIDS.

* * *

After the visit of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to Cameroon, a certain press echoed the supposed unease created by the Holy Father's statements on the use of condoms and on HIV/AIDS. This press continues to label the Pope's position on the use of condoms as irresponsible, and leads one to understand that his statements on this subject had a negative effect and affected his visit to Cameroon negatively.

Conscious of the consequences that such misinformation could cause, the national bishops' conference of Cameroon, through the voice of its president, Archbishop Simon-Victor Tonyé Bakot, specifies the following:

When the Pope was on the plane that would bring him to Cameroon, he granted a press interview on board the plane itself. This interview was limited to six questions, of which the fifth was the controversy posed by the journalist of France 2, Philippe Visseyrias:

"Holiness, among the many evils that afflict Africa, in particular is the spread of AIDS. The position of the Catholic Church on the way to fight against it is often considered unrealistic and ineffective. Will you address this subject during your trip?"

Here is the Holy Father's complete answer:

"I would say the contrary. I think that the most efficient reality, the most present at the front of the struggle against AIDS, is precisely the Catholic Church, with her movements, with her various organizations. I am thinking of the Sant'Egidio Community that does so much, visibly and also invisibly, for the struggle against AIDS, of the Camilliani, of all the sisters who are at the disposition of the sick.

"I would say that this problem of AIDS can't be overcome only with publicity slogans. If there is not the soul, if the Africans are not helped, the scourge can't be resolved with the distribution of condoms: on the contrary, there is a risk of increasing the problem. The solution can only be found in a double commitment: first, a humanization of sexuality, that is, a spiritual and human renewal that brings with it a new way of behaving with one another; and second, a true friendship, also and above all for those who suffer, the willingness -- even with sacrifice and self-denial -- to be with the suffering. And these are the factors that help and that lead to visible progress.

"Because of this, I would say that this, our double effort to renew man interiorly, to give spiritual and human strength for correct behavior with regard to one's body and that of another, and this capacity to suffer with those who suffer, to remain present in situations of trial. It seems to me that this is the correct answer, and the Church does this and thus offers a very great and important contribution. We thank all those who do this."

The bishops of Cameroon are astonished by what the journalists retained from this very complete statement of the Pope, focused only on opposition to condoms, concealing the whole action of the Church in the fight against AIDS and the care of the sick. They are astonished above all that the press attempts to make people believe that there is unease in Cameroonian opinion on the Holy Father's visit, as a consequence of his statements.

The Cameroonian episcopate underlines very strongly that Cameroonians welcomed Pope Benedict XVI with joy and enthusiasm, thus confirming their legendary hospitality. But by this, it does not deny the reality of AIDS, or its devastating effect on families in Cameroon.

The Holy Father has put man at the center of his concern and has reminded us of the teachings of Christ and of the Church. The Catholic Church's commitment to persons living with the AIDS virus, the support of infected and affected persons, are priorities for the Catholic Church. The support of persons and families as well as the teaching of the Church allow each one to appreciate himself in his dignity as adoptive child of God. This dignity obliges one to look at others and at the world in another way. Instead of seeking his own interest, the Church proposes to man everlasting values.

The Catholic Church everywhere is committed daily in the fight against AIDS. In this connection, she has created structures adapted for the reception, control and treatment of HIV infected persons. This assistance is at the same time moral, psychological, nutritional, medical and spiritual. Herein lies the Holy Father's first message on AIDS.

Together with this multifaceted and constant action, the Church, as moral force, has the imperative duty to remind Christians that all disordered sexual practice outside of marriage is dangerous and favors the spread of AIDS. This is why she preaches abstinence for single people and fidelity within the couple. It is her duty. She cannot subtract herself from it. Herein lies the Holy Father's second message.

Consequently, the bishops of Cameroon lament that the Western media have clearly forgotten other essential aspects of the Holy Father's African message on poverty, reconciliation, justice and peace. This is very serious, knowing the number of dead that other sickness cause in Africa, and on which there is no true publicity; knowing the number of dead that fratricidal fights cause in Africa due to injustice and poverty.

With the Pope, the bishops of Cameroon remind all Christians and all Cameroonians:

1) That sexual relations have as their first end the procreation desired by God himself at the beginning of creation. Marriage between a man and a woman is the ideal framework willed by God for this procreation.

2) That the Catholic Church does not reject AIDS patients and in no way encourages the spread of the sickness as certain media lead one to believe. She is and will always be active in the multifaceted fight against the sickness.

The bishops of Cameroon


Thursday, 26 March 2009

AIDS Worker Says Africans Don't Need Condoms

Web Site Documents Catholic Approach to Pandemic

By Genevieve Pollock

KAMPALA, Uganda, MARCH 25, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The director of an African AIDS care center is supporting Benedict XVI's words about the ineffectiveness of condoms in the struggle against the spread of the disease.

Rose Busingye, who directs Meeting Point Kampala, a center in Kampala for those suffering from AIDS, and cares for about 4,000 people a day, responded to the Pope's words and the public criticism he received.

In an interview published online March 20 by Il Sussidario, Busingye said that "those who contribute to the polemics over the Pope's statements must in reality understand that the true problem in the spread of AIDS in Africa is not condoms; talking about this would be to stop at the consequences and never go to the origin of the problem."

"At the root of the spread of HIV," she explained, "there is a behavior, there is a way of being." She added, "And then let's not forget that the great emergency is to take care of the people who have already contracted the disease and for whom condoms are useless."

Offering an example of the occasional lack of comprehension of the situation in Africa, Busingye spoke about a group of journalists who had come to report on the activities of Meeting Point. Seeing the condition of the HIV-positive women, they were moved. They decided to make themselves useful and do something for the women: they gave them a small box of condoms.

Seeing this, the director reported, one of the women at the center, Jovine, looked at them and said: "My husband is dying and I have six children who will soon be orphans. What use are these boxes you are giving me?"

"What that woman and many other women like her need," Busingye affirmed, "is to have someone who looks at them and says: ‘Woman, don't cry!'"

"It is absurd," she added, "to try to respond to her need with a box of condoms, and the absurdity is in not seeing that man is love, and affectivity."

Real solutions

Speaking about persons who could spread the disease by having relations with others, Busingye explained: "AIDS is a problem like every other problem in life that cannot be reduced to one cause. We need to begin from the fact that there needs to be education, even in living and sexuality."

She said that in the current situation in Africa the use of condoms "can seem a bit ridiculous" since before using them one must first wash their hands, keep all dust away and store them at a certain temperature -- all things which Busingye said are rather difficult for the women she cares for to do.

Thus, she asserted, many who talk about using condoms in Africa do so without the slightest knowledge of the problem and the conditions of the continent.

Because of this, she observed, the Pope's statements caused little controversy in Africa itself.

"The Pope," Busingye emphasized, "is doing nothing else but defending and supporting precisely that which will be useful for helping these people: affirming the meaning of life and the dignity of the human being."

She continued: "Those who attack him have interests to defend, but the Pope has no such interests: he is concerned about us, and he is concerned about Africa.

"He is not the one, who is bringing mines to blow up our children, our children who become soldiers, who become amputees, without ears, without mouths, unable to swallow saliva: and what should we give them, condoms?

"When a few years ago there was genocide in Rwanda, everyone stood by and watched. Nearby there is a tiny town, which could have been protected, and no one did anything.

"My relatives were there, and they all died in an inhumane way. No one cared, and now they are coming here with condoms."

Pointing out that malaria kills more people than AIDS, Busingye asked: "Why don't they bring us aspirin and anti-malaria medicine?"

She stated that there is a method that works and that caused a reduction in the spread of AIDS in Uganda from 18% of the population to 3% and "it is to do it in a way that makes the people feel cared for." She concluded, "We see it here at Meeting Point: when the people come here, they don't want to leave."


A new Web site offers videos that document the fight against AIDS from a Catholic perspective. Metanoia Media, producer of the award-winning video "Sowing in Tears" and its follow-up, "The Change Is On," released the site last Friday to give a different perspective on the Pope's words about condoms. "The Change Is On" features unique footage and testimonies of abstinence activists and Catholic AIDS workers in South Africa and Uganda. It documents their successes and the challenging issues they face in the fight against the pandemic.

Norman Servais, head of the South African production company, told ZENIT: "My country, as you know, is the AIDS capital of the world, so speak to us about condoms if you like and we'll tell you that they are not the answer!"

Bishop Hugh Slattery of Tzaneen, South Africa, commissioned the videos as part of a program to respond to HIV/AIDS in an authentically Catholic way.

In an interview with ZENIT, Bishop Slattery said that the aim of the second video, completed last year, is to show that "abstinence before marriage and fidelity within marriage will quickly stop the spread of AIDS."

A third production entitled "Called to Care", will deal with "caring for the sick, the dying, and the AIDS orphans," and a fourth video, due for release later this year, will show "marriage and family as the real solution to the AIDS pandemic."


Notre Dame Student Groups Denounce University's Choice of Obama for Commencement Speech

25 March 2009

NOTRE DAME, IN, 25 March 2009 — A number of student groups at the University of Notre Dame issued a statement today repudiating the University’s selection of President Barack Obama to deliver its 2009 Commencement Address. The statement criticizes the president’s position on abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and other life issues, and chastises University administration for apparently looking over what they termed "fundamental moral principles."

The statement responds to Friday afternoon’s announcement of Obama as the speaker for the University’s 164th Commencement. Citing Catholic teaching on abortion, as well as the US Bishops’ 2004 document "Catholics in Political Life," which deals with issues surrounding a Catholic response to politicians who advocate abortion, the student statement expresses “deepest opposition” to the decision. "This is not a partisan issue; rather, it’s an issue of respect for human life, and our Catholic character. We want to emphasize that we are not attacking the office of the President, but taking issue with his moral stances. I think the statement makes it clear that the student body of Notre Dame is not unequivocally in favor of this decision,” said senior Emily Toates of Notre Dame Right to Life.
An Ad Hoc committee sponsored by a coalition of University-sponsored student groups has been organized to lead student response. These groups include Notre Dame Right to Life, Jus Vitae (Notre Dame Law School Right to Life), the Irish Rover independent student newspaper, Notre Dame College Republicans, The University of Notre Dame Anscombe Society, The Identity Project of Notre Dame, Notre Dame Knights of the Immaculata, Notre Dame Children of Mary, the Orestes Brownson Council, Notre Dame Law St. Thomas More Society, and the Federalist Society of the Notre Dame Law School.


In defense of the unborn, we wish to express our deepest opposition to Reverend John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.’s invitation of President Barack Obama to be the University of Notre Dame’s principal commencement speaker and the recipient of an honorary degree. Our objection is not a matter of political partisanship, but of President Obama’s hostility to the Catholic Church’s teachings on the sanctity of human life at its earliest stages. His recent dedication of federal funds to overseas abortions and to embryonic stem cell research will directly result in the deaths of thousands of innocent human beings. We cannot sit by idly while the University honors someone who believes that an entire class of human beings is undeserving of the most basic of all legal rights, the right to live.
The University’s decision runs counter to the policy of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops against honoring pro-choice politicians. In their June 2004 statement Catholics in Political Life, the bishops said, “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors, or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” Fr. Jenkins defends his invitation by saying that it does not honor or suggest support for the President’s views on abortion, but rather support for his leadership. But our “fundamental moral principles” must be respected at all times. And the principle that requires us to refrain from the direct killing of the innocent has a special status even among the most fundamental principles. President Obama’s actions have consistently shown contempt for this principle, and he has sought political gain by making light of its clear political implications. Leadership that puts the lives of the most innocent at risk is leadership we must disdain. In the face of President Obama’s actions, Father Jenkins’ words ring hollow.
It is a great irony that the University has chosen to award President Obama an honorary law degree. As the oldest Catholic law school in the country, the Notre Dame Law School states that its mission is “to facilitate greater understanding of and commitment to the relationship between law and social justice.” The social justice issue of our day is the deliberate, legal attack on the most vulnerable members of society, the unborn. To award a Notre Dame law degree to a lawyer and politician who has used the law to deny equality to the unborn diminishes the value of the degree itself.
Additionally, Fr. Jenkins has placed some of his students in a moral dilemma as to whether they should attend their own graduation. Many pro-life seniors, along with their families, are conflicted about whether to participate in the commencement ceremony. The lack of concern for these devoted sons and daughters of Notre Dame, who love this University and the Catholic principles on which it was built, is shameful.
In response to the University’s decision, we pledge ourselves to acts of witness that will be characterized by respect, prayerfulness, outspoken fidelity to the Church, and true concern for the good of our University. It is appropriate that only members of the Notre Dame community lead all such protests, and we ask outside groups to respect our responsibilities in this regard. Over the next several weeks, in response to this scandal, our organizations will host various academic and religious events to engage the University community. We request any groups who are committed to respectful actions to support our efforts, thereby ensuring a unified front and a more compelling public witness.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Pope Benedict: A human and spiritual wake-up call

Michael Czerny SJ

Pope Benedict’s words at the beginning of his trip to Africa, regarding the use of condoms in preventing the spread of AIDS, generated a media storm. But the Pope’s comments are not the cause for concern that they were reported to be, argues Michael Czerny SJ. Why is the Church’s teaching on this issue not ‘unrealistic and ineffective’, as alleged; but valuable, efficient, and grounded in reality?

Setting out on his first visit as Pope to Africa, Benedict XVI held his traditional press conference with journalists accompanying him to Yaoundé on the plane.[1] The fifth question went like this:

Your Holiness, among the many ills that beset Africa, one of the most pressing is the spread of Aids. The position of the Catholic Church on the way to fight it is often considered unrealistic and ineffective. Will you address this theme during the journey?

Any answer would probably have generated headlines. As it was, a fragment of the Pope’s reply instantly launched a media frenzy which has left many perplexed, saddened and even outraged. Let’s take a careful look behind the headlines at what Pope Benedict XVI actually said and try to understand what he meant.

First, a bit of background. According to 2006 figures, baptised African Catholics numbered about 150 million, some 17% of the African population, compared with 12% back in 1978. According to UNAIDS (2007), about 22 million in sub-Saharan Africa are infected with HIV. This makes up 67 percent of the world's HIV-positive people. Of recorded AIDS-related deaths in 2007, three-quarters occurred in sub-Saharan Africa.

In response to the journalist, Pope Benedict gave a brief reply, touching on several dimensions of this highly complex problem.

1. To the question of the Church’s position being ‘unrealistic and ineffective’, the Pope replied: ‘I would say the opposite. I think that the most efficient, most truly present player in the fight against AIDS is the Catholic Church herself, with her movements and her various organizations.’ Religious communities of brothers, sisters and priests, as well as lay communities, ‘do so much, visibly and also behind the scenes’ and ‘take care of the sick’.

Vatican officials estimate that around the world the Catholic Church now provides more than 25 percent of all care administered to those with HIV/AIDS. The proportion is naturally higher in Africa, nearly 100% in the remotest areas. Let an HIV-positive Burundian on antiretroviral drugs explain the service:

When we go to other places, they only see numbers in us. We become hospital cases to be dealt with. We are problems. We lose our sense of dignity and worth. Yet we never feel that when we come to our Church programme. This is because we get a complete approach to our problems, whether spiritual, medical, mental, social or economic. (Personal testimony)

2. Building on the Church’s important, effective and realistic track record, the Holy Father now raises two critical issues:

2a. ‘I would say that this problem of AIDS cannot be overcome merely with money, necessary though it is. If there is no human dimension, if Africans do not help [by responsible behaviour] ….’

Without explicitly using the vocabulary, the Holy Father is making a crucial contrast between the Church’s approach (based on human dimension and responsible behaviour) and the typical public policy approaches of governments and international organisations (based on money). Public policy deals with whole populations. It uses statistics to grasp a problem and then tackles it through policies and programmes. The hoped-for result is a statistical improvement. In the case of AIDS, public health does what is technically necessary and possible to reduce the numbers infected and the numbers dying.

Not to undervalue this contribution, let us recognise that public policy and programming function as a lowest common denominator, a minimum which every citizen has a right to. Public health policy deals with figures and trends – not with human faces and persons.

The Christian vision includes all that, but goes broader and deeper than policy. With a holistic vision, the Church sees each person as a child of God, as brother or sister, each one capable of both sin and holiness. Now, such unique, whole and holy persons are not readily detectable in tables of averages. But they are the real people of real life. As believers, they are the pillars of communities, the silent agents of deep transformation. So the Church’s work of addressing, forming, guiding and challenging persons is more ambitious than public health, deeply different in quality and spirit.

Facing not only AIDS but multiple crises in most corners of the continent, Africans have good reason, based on experience, to believe in the Church’s bold vision for them.

2b. Having pointed towards the Church’s holistic programme and taken distance from the necessarily narrower approach of public policy, the Holy Father now critiques the further reduction of public policy to a single means and method: ‘…the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it.’

In Europe and North America, where condoms are culturally accepted by many, people ask incredulously, ‘Why on earth does the Church oppose their promotion?’ Some with muddled thinking have even accused Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI of presiding over an AIDS genocide.

There are two distinct issues here: the moral status of individual acts; and the viability of a strategy targeting whole populations.

Regarding individual acts: according to prevention experts, a condom, when it is correctly used, can reduce the risk of HIV-infection during an act of intercourse, and individuals who use condoms consistently are less likely to give or get HIV. When a man and woman have sex before, within or outside marriage, public health is unconcerned with the morality of what they do in the privacy of the bedroom. Culturally and legally, in Europe and North America, there is considerable acceptance for sexual behaviour as long as it is consensual, that is, provided the two individuals both agree. In this context, the condom seems common sense. Western opinion makers and media really want the Church to approve of extramarital sex, which is against the religious faith and traditional cultural values shared by millions throughout the world.

The Church understands sexual intercourse as part of a moral vision, permitting intercourse only within a married couple and excluding artificial means of contraception. Doing something wrong might be safer with a condom but safety doesn’t make the act right. The Church cannot encourage ‘safer’ without suggesting that it is somehow right. To say, ‘Do not commit adultery but, if you do, use a condom’ is tantamount to saying: ‘The Church has no confidence in you to live the good life.’

A man and woman, not married to each other, who have consensual intercourse are disregarding the Church’s teaching. They hardly need the Pope to tell them to use a condom. What they badly do need is for the Church to help them live a respectful and responsible sexuality. ‘Abstinence and fidelity are not only the best way to avoid becoming infected by HIV or infecting others, but even more are they the best way of ensuring progress towards lifelong happiness and true fulfilment.’ [2]

In the age of AIDS, there is a special case: married couples who are discordant (one spouse being HIV positive) or doubly infected (both being HIV positive). Here, the Church accompanies a couple pastorally in making the most life-enhancing decision about their lives, their family, their marital relationship and their desire to have children. They deserve the same respect and dignity as every other Christian, which includes help to form their consciences, not having a neatly packaged solution dictated to them from the pulpit, much less in the press or on a billboard. You will not find a stauncher champion of the duty to follow one’s conscience than Pope Benedict.

What of the many situations that make Africans, especially women, more vulnerable to HIV infection – poverty, conflict, displacement, abuse and rape (even within on-going relationships)? It is obviously a total illusion to imagine that a sexual aggressor could ever be persuaded to use a condom by the Pope, the State, an NGO or anyone else. But we can imagine a de-facto discordant couple, where the husband refuses to be tested, insists on intercourse and invokes Church teaching not to use a condom. Involved in several layers of self-deception, the man is not entitled to claim the moral high ground, putting his wife’s life at risk. But no general solution is going to address the evils at work here. At the parish level the Church can and usually does offer moral formation, encouraging people to get tested and defending the rights of women.

On the second issue of a strategy for whole populations, there is widespread belief that condom-use programmes are effective in reducing HIV infection rates. However, this proves true only outside Africa and amongst identifiable sub-groups (e.g. prostitutes, gay men), not in a general population. There is no evidence that condoms as a public health strategy have reduced HIV levels at the level of the whole population.[3] Indeed, greater availability and use of condoms is consistently associated with higher (not lower) HIV infection rates, perhaps because when one uses a risk reduction ‘technology’ such as condoms, one often loses the benefit (reduction in risk) because people take greater chances than they would without the technology.

Therefore at the public level, an aggressive condoms policy ‘increases the problem’ as it deflects attention, credibility and resources from more effective strategies like abstinence and fidelity – or in secular language, the postponement of sexual debut and a reduction in the proportion of men and women reporting multiple sexual partners. Abstinence and fidelity win little public support in dominant Western discourse, but they are vindicated by solid scientific research and are increasingly included, even favoured, in national AIDS strategies in Africa.

The promotion of condoms as the strategy for reducing HIV infection in a general population is based on statistical probability and intuitive plausibility. It enjoys considerable credibility in the Western media and among Western opinion makers. What it lacks is scientific support.

Some specialists in the prevention of HIV assume that, since vast numbers of people do not know whether or not they are infected, condom use should be automatic, mandatory and universal. Yet 95% of Africans between 15 and 49 years of age are not infected (UNAIDS 2007). Knowing your status is a crucial step towards taking responsibility for your actions. Several Africans have told me that once they tested positive, they made a firm option for abstinence, rather than risk infecting someone else.

Thus, the Bishops of Kenya:

Even if HIV did not make pre-marital sex, fornication, adultery, abuse of minors and rape so terribly dangerous, they would still be wrong and always have been. It is not the risk of HIV or the sufferings of AIDS, which make sexual licence immoral; these are violations of the Sixth and Ninth Commandments which are sinful, and today in Kenya surely the worst of their many destructive consequences is HIV and AIDS. The Church does not teach a different sexual morality, when or where AIDS poses no danger. But this teaching is not easy for ‘the world’ including the media to understand, much less accept.[4]

The fact is that culture counts. A condom is more than a piece of latex; it also makes a statement about the meaning of life. While in Europe and North America the idea is quite acceptable (although not to all), in Africa fertility is prized and the condom seems foreign and strange, and the values it embodies alien. A Jesuit in South Africa wrote to me, ‘Most people here think that “the Pope and condoms” is a side-show, stoked up by the media, and not an issue on which we want to spill more ink or destroy more forest.’

So when Benedict XVI affirmed that ‘the distribution of prophylactics … increase[s] the problem,’ it was not a casual remark or a gaffe; he had good grounds for saying so.

3. ‘The solution must have two elements:

[3a] firstly, bringing out the human dimension of sexuality, that is to say a spiritual and human renewal that would bring with it a new way of behaving towards others … our effort to renew humanity inwardly, to give spiritual and human strength for proper conduct towards our bodies and those of others.’

This sexuality is based on faith in God, respect for oneself and the other, and hope for the future. Compare this vision with reliance on condoms. Everyone must recognise that ‘condoms all the time for everyone’ goes with a notion of ‘sex as fun without consequences’. Deep down, we know what a lie that is. It means treating another human being as a vehicle for my own pleasure. As public policy, it is to treat people as rapacious, unable to control themselves, incapable of anything beyond immediate self-gratification. Such an attitude is horribly pessimistic about humankind in general and, when imposed by public and international agencies on Africans, it also represents unconscious but abhorrent racism. This is not a route that the Church can take.

3b. ‘Secondly, true friendship offered above all to those who are suffering, a willingness to make sacrifices and to practise self-denial, to be alongside the suffering … this capacity to suffer with those who are suffering, to remain present in situations of trial.’

Such compassionate and generous service has been the lived African experience, practically from the beginning. Those afflicted by AIDS have usually found acceptance, solace and assistance from the Church whether they are members or not. Moreover, the formation of conscience (3a) and the selfless care (3b) go together. A Church who tirelessly serves those in need is also credible in the teaching and formation which she offers. ‘And so,’ the Holy Father sums up, ‘these are the factors that help and that lead to real progress’ in the fight against AIDS.

Springing up out of Catholic faith and tradition, the Pope’s whole and indeed holistic message is for the people he is visiting. It connects thoroughly with the human reality on the ground. A Congolese Jesuit wrote to me, ‘Over here we are following the visit of the Pope with great interest, as well as the speculation in the press about the question of condoms arising from the Holy Father’s wise statement before touching down in Africa. What a shame that so far people don’t realise that the solution to AIDS won’t come with distribution of these things, but by handling the whole question as a whole.’

4. The Holy Father concludes by answering again the journalist’s allegation of ‘unrealistic and ineffective?’: ‘It seems to me that this is the proper response, and the Church does this, thereby offering an enormous and important contribution. We thank all who do so.’

According to my experience, most Africans, Catholic or not, agree. To them, what the Holy Father said is profound and true. He is reiterating what they have been experiencing for years and what they continue to expect. They too thank those who implement the Church’s strategy.

Michael Czerny SJ is Director of the African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN)

[1] In English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese as of 24 March 2009.

[2] Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, October 2003

[3] Prof. Edward C. Green, director of the Harvard AIDS Prevention Research Project, Interview in Christianity Today posted 20/3/2009 citing researchpublished since 2004 in Science, The Lancet, British Medical Journal and Studies in Family Planning http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/marchweb-only/111-53.0.html (24 March 2009).

[4] Kenyan Episcopal Conference, This We Teach and Do, Volume One, 2006, http://www.kec.or.ke/viewdocument.asp?ID=19


Relic of St Benedict discovered

Bones of 39 saints discovered in British Museum

THE NEW medieval gallery at the British Museum in London is full of beautiful images of saints in ivory, stone, gold and wood – but invisible to visitors, it also holds the bones of 39 real saints, whose discovery came as a shock to their curator.

The relics, packed in tiny bundles of cloth, including one scrap of fabric more than 1,000 years old, were found when a 12th-century German portable altar was opened for the first time since it came into the British Museum collection in 1902.

It was in for a condition check and cleaning before going on display tomorrow. But to the amazement of James Robinson, curator of medieval antiquities, when it was opened a linen cloth was revealed, and inside it dozens of tiny bundles of cloth, each neatly labelled on little pieces of vellum.

The most precious was the relic of St Benedict, an Italian who in the early 6th century was credited as the father of the western monastic tradition, founding monasteries and establishing guiding principles still followed at many monasteries. The relic was wrapped in cloth which was itself an extraordinary object, a piece of silk from 8th- or 9th-century Byzantium.

Each Roman Catholic altar-stone is supposed to contain at least one relic of a saint, usually in the form of minute flakes of bone.

The newly discovered saints will remain at the museum. Mr Robinson said they were cared for and rearranged into the 19th century, the date of the most recent piece of fabric, but at some point one was lost as there are 40 engraved names but only 39 saintly bundles. – ( Guardian service)

Saturday, 21 March 2009

African AIDS: the facts that demolish the myths

Michael Cook | Saturday, 21 March 2009

The mystery of why AIDS has been so devastating in Africa has been solved. And it’s not lack of condoms.

Red Hill Cemetery in Durban, South Africa / New York TimesBenedict XVI’s recent comment on the African AIDS crisis -- "the scourge cannot be resolved by distributing condoms; quite the contrary, we risk worsening the problem" – provoked an international sensation all out of proportion to its half-sentence length.

"Impeach the Pope!" wrote a Catholic columnist in the Washington Post. This Pope is "a disaster", a Vatican official told the London Telegraph. These bouquets came from his friends. His foes were sulphurous. "Grievously wrong!" thundered the New York Times. "There is no evidence that condom use is aggravating the epidemic and considerable evidence that condoms, though no panacea, can be helpful in many circumstances."

No evidence, eh? None at all? Not even just a teensy-weensy bit? Had the Gray Lady and the thousands of other politicians and journalists who rained abuse on the Pope queried any AIDS experts about this? Apparently not. Had they done so, they would have discovered that many African AIDS strategists are having serious misgivings about an obsession with condoms.

In fact, a Harvard expert on AIDS prevention, Dr Edward C. Green, told MercatorNet bluntly: "the Pope is actually correct". Dr Green is no lightweight in the field of AIDS research. He is the author of five books and over 250 peer-reviewed articles -- and, he added, he is an agnostic, not a Catholic.

The not-enough-condoms explanation of the global HIV/AIDS epidemic is driven "not by evidence, but by ideology, stereotypes, and false assumptions," Dr Green wrote last year in the journal First Things. And myths kill: "they result in efforts that are at best ineffective and at worst harmful, while the AIDS epidemic continues to spread and exact a devastating toll in human lives".(1)

Experts with doubts

Dr Green is not a maverick voice. Similar views are being expressed in the world’s leading scientific journals. In an article in The Lancet, for instance, James Shelton, of the US Agency for International Development, stated flatly that one of the ten damaging myths about the fight against AIDS is that condoms are the answer. "Condoms alone have limited impact in generalised epidemics [as in Africa]," Shelton wrote.(2)

As long ago as 2004, an article in the journal Studies in Family Planning conceded that "no clear examples have emerged yet of a country that has turned back a generalized epidemic primarily by means of condom promotion". In fact, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS can actually rise with increased distribution of condoms. Take Cameroon, for instance, the country to which the Pope was flying when he made his notorious remarks. Between 1992 and 2001 condom sales there increased from 6 million to 15 million -- while HIV prevalence tripled, from 3 percent to 9 per cent.(3)

Benedict’s critics blithely assume that the solution is more condoms because AIDS in Soweto is like AIDS in San Francisco. It’s not. In the West, AIDS is confined to high-risk groups, like sex workers, homosexuals, and injecting drug users. Within these groups, studies do show that condoms are effective to some extent. But AIDS in Africa is a generalised, heterosexual epidemic which affects ordinary people.

For years, researchers have desperately sought to understand why AIDS there has been so devastating. Sub-Saharan Africa is most heavily affected region in the world. It accounts for 67 percent of all people living with HIV and for 72 percent of AIDS deaths in 2007.(4) But now the answer is crystal clear. The reason is the widespread practice of "multiple concurrent partnerships".

Multiple partnerships

What does this mean? In Africa, it is not uncommon for an individual to have more than one long-term partner at a time. In the West, we might use the terms "mistress" or "boyfriend". Relationships like these are more than just casual hook-ups; to some extent they are based on intimacy, trust and friendship. In these circumstances, it is very difficult to persuade men to use condoms consistently. Concurrency, as the scholars term it, is a deadly recipe.

This is the theme of a highly-praised 2007 book by the medical journalist Helen Epstein, The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS (warmly reviewed by the New York Times, by the way). For a long time she attributed the epidemic to commercial sex, poverty, discrimination against women and low condom use. But after observing that HIV rates were increasing despite higher condom use, she grasped that concurrency is the key to the problem. She describes these multiple long-term partnerships as the "super highway of infections" with casual sex operating as "on ramps".

"Condoms alone won’t stop the virus, because so much transmission is taking place in longer term relationships in which condoms are seldom used," she told an interviewer last year. "Therefore, a collective shift in sexual norms, especially partner reduction, is crucial."(5)

And it turns out that condoms can be worse than just ineffective in a generalised epidemic. Dr Green explained to MercatorNet that they "may even exacerbate HIV infection levels due to a phenomenon called risk compensation, or behavioral disinhibition. People take more sexual risks because they feel safer than is actually justified when using condoms."

Effective solutions

If showering condoms over Africa can’t stop the epidemic, what will? According to a recent article in Science by researchers from the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard, the University of California at San Francisco, and the San Francisco Department of Public Health, only two interventions definitely work: male circumcision and reducing multiple partnerships.(6)

Male circumcision significantly reduces the risk of heterosexual HIV infection and has even been called a "surgical vaccine". It may explain why HIV rates in West Africa are relatively low. The UN is promoting it vigorously in southern Africa. But the challenge is huge – about 2.5 million circumcisions by the year 2010. Good luck to them!

The other effective strategy, say these experts, is "partner reduction", which -- surprise! surprise! -- sounds remarkably like what the Pope recommends. In Uganda, HIV prevalence reduced dramatically after an intensive "zero grazing" campaign in the 1990s. A recent decline in Kenya’s HIV rate seems to be due to partner reduction and marital fidelity. Furthermore, despite scepticism by Westerners, it is possible to change sexual behaviour. A 2006 campaign in Swaziland about the danger of having a "secret lover" resulted in fewer partners.

If the standard HIV-prevention toolbox has "failed utterly to reduce HIV transmission", as Dr Green and other researchers contend in the current issue of Studies in Family Planning (7), how much is being spent on the treatment that works? Very little, complain the authors of the article in Science. The biggest chunk of the US$3.2 billion UNAIDS budget has been allocated to interventions which are "unsupported by rigorous evidence". Only 20 percent goes to generalised epidemics in Africa and elsewhere, even though these account for two-thirds of all HIV infections. Only 5 percent goes towards male circumcision -- and a negligible amount to changing sexual behaviour.

An editorial in the Seattle Times derided Pope Benedict for living in an "alternate universe".(8) But it isn’t the Pope who has take up residence there. It’s his critics. As Dr Green wrote last year, "Christian churches -- indeed, most faith communities -- have a comparative advantage in promoting the needed types of behavior change, since these behaviors conform to their moral, ethical, and scriptural teachings. What the churches are inclined to do anyway turns out to be what works best in AIDS prevention." (9)

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.


(1) Edward C. Green and Allison Herling Ruark. "AIDS and the Churches: Getting the Story Right". First Things. April 2008.

(2) James D. Shelton. "Ten myths and one truth about generalised HIV epidemics." The Lancet. December 1, 2007. pp 1809-1811.

(3) Norman Hearts and Sanny Chen. "Condom promotion for AIDS prevention in the developing world: is it working?" Studies in Family Planning. March 2004. pp 39-47.

(4) "2008 Report on the global AIDS epidemic". UNAIDS. July 2008.

(5) "AIDS Journalist Helen Epstein on The Invisible Cure". Philanthropy Action. May 20, 2008.

(6) Malcolm Potts et al. "Reassessing HIV Prevention". Science, May 9, 2008. pp 749-750.

(7) Edward C. Green et al. "A Framework of Sexual Partnerships: Risks and Implications for HIV Prevention in Africa." Studies in Family Planning. March 2009, pp 63-70.

(8) "Pope Benedict's alternate universe". Seattle Times. March 19, 2009.

(9) Edward C. Green and Allison Herling Ruark. "AIDS and the Churches: Getting the Story Right". First Things. April 2008.


2 French Deputies Defend Pope

Press Manipulated Comments on Condoms

VIENNE, France, MARCH 20, 2009 - Two French deputies publicly supported Benedict XVI's position on condoms as an insufficient means to fight against AIDS, noting that his words were "deformed" and "exaggerated" by the media.

Christian Vanneste, deputy of Nord, and Jacques Remiller, deputy-mayor of Vienne, each used their blogs to defend the Pope's position.

Remiller stated that the Holy Father's words had been manipulated, especially by "the French political class," which has carried out a veritable "witch hunt" against the Pontiff.

He noted that what Benedict XVI asked for, just before requesting "free care for AIDS patients" in Cameroon, was that the world "stop considering the condom as the only solution to the problem of AIDS in Africa."

The policy to combat AIDS "must not be limited, in fact, to advertising for condoms," noted the French politician, who added that "it is certainly an effective means when used correctly, but its widespread distribution will not impede grave behavioral problems such as rape and incest."

Farsighted and effective

He added, "What the Pope reminded [us] above all, is that the best, the most farsighted and effective way to combat the plague of AIDS and to protect human life resides in a real education to responsibility, in medical research, the diffusion of therapies, and care of the sick."

Vanneste said that the Pope "is not a demagogic politician, but a bearer of hope -- others would say that he gives an ideal -- and it is from the this that his words should be understood and judged."

He continued: "Surely the popular pack of hounds of materialists and hedonists is very far from being able to understand this message. The more concrete mass of faithful gathered at this moment around the Holy Father is contributing a better answer."

Vanneste asserted that there were no discrepancies on this subject between John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as both "always desired Christian unity, the union of believers, and always mentioned the moral exigencies that cannot be disassociated from Catholicism."

"John Paul II would not have said anything different, because no Pope could prefer a mechanical answer -- that, moreover, is imperfect -- to a moral and spiritual practice that, in itself, is really liberating," he added.

Vanneste stated that those who "detested John Paul II and his principles" did not dare to attack him because "he was the symbol of a country that was victim of Communist oppression" and "a man of communication."

He explained that Benedict XVI is not this, and now "the time has come for revenge" against him "whose least acts and words are picked up to be criticized, not without first deforming and exaggerating them." He pointed out, "There was Regensburg, Williamson and now condoms and Africa."


Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Pope Welcomed by Cameroon Muslims and Protestants

Imam Says Papal Visit is a Blessing

YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon, MARCH 17, 2009 - Benedict XVI received a special welcome from Muslim and Protestant leaders as he arrived at the international airport of Yaoundé-Nsimalen today.

The great imam of Yaoundé, Sheik Ibrahim Moussa, affirmed: "In the Koran, the prophet Mohammed recommends to welcome the foreigners, because very often they come with peace. Therefore, for us, the coming of the Pope is a blessing."

At the beginning of his three-day stay in Cameroon, the Pope is receiving repeated welcomes from the leaders of the Muslim community, which forms the second largest religion after Christianity in this country of more than 18 million people.

Motivated by the Pope's arrival, Sheik Moussa appealed to faithful Muslims to "respect the religion of others and to unite to welcome this great man."

As reported by the local press, the Islamic leader said: "We consider the Pope as a great imam," referring to the person in charge of presiding over the canonical Muslim prayer, who takes a place in front of the faithful so that they will follow his prayers and movements.

He added, "We pray that his stay goes well and that he returns to his home in peace."

The imam stated: "We have a good opinion of him, above all we live peacefully with the Catholic faithful, in fact, we pray to one God. Thus, Muslims are as happy as they are to receive the Pope here in our country."

Christian welcome

The Protestant communities also have welcomed the Pope.

"The coming of the Holy Father to our country is a grace that cannot leave a Christian indifferent," said the Reverend Jean Emile Ngue, general secretary of the Federation of Protestant Churches of Cameroon.

He affirmed that the Pope's visit to the country is "an event of elevated spiritual scope."

Friday, 13 March 2009

The Letter of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI on St Pius X bishops

VATICAN CITY, 12 MAR 2009 (VIS) - Made public today was the Letter of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to the bishops of the Catholic Church concerning the remission of the excommunication of the four bishops consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre.

The Letter is dated 10 March and has been published in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Portuguese. The complete text of the English-language version is given below:

"Dear brothers in the episcopal ministry.

"The remission of the excommunication of the four Bishops consecrated in 1988 by Archbishop Lefebvre without a mandate of the Holy See has for many reasons caused, both within and beyond the Catholic Church, a discussion more heated than any we have seen for a long time. Many bishops felt perplexed by an event which came about unexpectedly and was difficult to view positively in the light of the issues and tasks facing the Church today. Even though many bishops and members of the faithful were disposed in principle to take a positive view of the Pope's concern for reconciliation, the question remained whether such a gesture was fitting in view of the genuinely urgent demands of the life of faith in our time. Some groups, on the other hand, openly accused the Pope of wanting to turn back the clock to before the Council: as a result, an avalanche of protests was unleashed, whose bitterness laid bare wounds deeper than those of the present moment. I therefore feel obliged to offer you, dear brothers, a word of clarification, which ought to help you understand the concerns which led me and the competent offices of the Holy See to take this step. In this way I hope to contribute to peace in the Church.

"An unforeseen mishap for me was the fact that the Williamson case came on top of the remission of the excommunication. The discreet gesture of mercy towards four bishops ordained validly but not legitimately suddenly appeared as something completely different: as the repudiation of reconciliation between Christians and Jews, and thus as the reversal of what the Council had laid down in this regard to guide the Church's path. A gesture of reconciliation with an ecclesial group engaged in a process of separation thus turned into its very antithesis: an apparent step backwards with regard to all the steps of reconciliation between Christians and Jews taken since the Council - steps which my own work as a theologian had sought from the beginning to take part in and support. That this overlapping of two opposed processes took place and momentarily upset peace between Christians and Jews, as well as peace within the Church, is something which I can only deeply deplore. I have been told that consulting the information available on the internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on. I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news. I was saddened by the fact that even Catholics who, after all, might have had a better knowledge of the situation, thought they had to attack me with open hostility. Precisely for this reason I thank all the more our Jewish friends, who quickly helped to clear up the misunderstanding and to restore the atmosphere of friendship and trust which - as in the days of Pope John Paul II - has also existed throughout my pontificate and, thank God, continues to exist.

"Another mistake, which I deeply regret, is the fact that the extent and limits of the provision of 21 January 2009 were not clearly and adequately explained at the moment of its publication. The excommunication affects individuals, not institutions. An episcopal ordination lacking a pontifical mandate raises the danger of a schism, since it jeopardises the unity of the College of Bishops with the Pope. Consequently the Church must react by employing her most severe punishment - excommunication - with the aim of calling those thus punished to repent and to return to unity. Twenty years after the ordinations, this goal has sadly not yet been attained. The remission of the excommunication has the same aim as that of the punishment: namely, to invite the four bishops once more to return. This gesture was possible once the interested parties had expressed their recognition in principle of the Pope and his authority as Pastor, albeit with some reservations in the area of obedience to his doctrinal authority and to the authority of the Council. Here I return to the distinction between individuals and institutions. The remission of the excommunication was a measure taken in the field of ecclesiastical discipline: the individuals were freed from the burden of conscience constituted by the most serious of ecclesiastical penalties. This disciplinary level needs to be distinguished from the doctrinal level. The fact that the Society of Saint Pius X does not possess a canonical status in the Church is not, in the end, based on disciplinary but on doctrinal reasons. As long as the society does not have a canonical status in the Church, its ministers do not exercise legitimate ministries in the Church. There needs to be a distinction, then, between the disciplinary level, which deals with individuals as such, and the doctrinal level, at which ministry and institution are involved. In order to make this clear once again: until the doctrinal questions are clarified, the society has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers - even though they have been freed of the ecclesiastical penalty - do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church.

"In light of this situation, it is my intention henceforth to join the Pontifical Commission 'Ecclesia Dei' - the body which has been competent since 1988 for those communities and persons who, coming from the Society of Saint Pius X or from similar groups, wish to return to full communion with the Pope - to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This will make it clear that the problems now to be addressed are essentially doctrinal in nature and concern primarily the acceptance of the Vatican Council II and the post-conciliar Magisterium of the Popes. The collegial bodies with which the congregation studies questions which arise (especially the ordinary Wednesday meeting of cardinals and the annual or biennial plenary session) ensure the involvement of the prefects of the different Roman congregations and representatives from the world's bishops in the process of decision-making. The Church's teaching authority cannot be frozen in the year 1962 - this must be quite clear to the Society. But some of those who put themselves forward as great defenders of the Council also need to be reminded that Vatican II embraces the entire doctrinal history of the Church. Anyone who wishes to be obedient to the Council has to accept the faith professed over the centuries, and cannot sever the roots from which the tree draws its life.

"I hope, dear brothers, that this serves to clarify the positive significance and also the limits of the provision of 21 January 2009. But the question still remains: Was this measure needed? Was it really a priority? Aren't other things perhaps more important? Of course there are more important and urgent matters. I believe that I set forth clearly the priorities of my pontificate in the addresses which I gave at its beginning. Everything that I said then continues unchanged as my plan of action. The first priority for the Successor of Peter was laid down by the Lord in the Upper Room in the clearest of terms: 'You ... strengthen your brothers'. Peter himself formulated this priority anew in his first Letter: 'Always be prepared to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you'. In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God. Not just any god, but the God Who spoke on Sinai; to that God Whose face we recognise in a love which presses 'to the end' - in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.

"Leading men and women to God, to the God Who speaks in the Bible: this is the supreme and fundamental priority of the Church and of the Successor of Peter at the present time. A logical consequence of this is that we must have at heart the unity of all believers. Their disunity, their disagreement among themselves, calls into question the credibility of their talk of God. Hence the effort to promote a common witness by Christians to their faith - ecumenism - is part of the supreme priority. Added to this is the need for all those who believe in God to join in seeking peace, to attempt to draw closer to one another, and to journey together, even with their differing images of God, towards the source of Light - this is inter-religious dialogue. Whoever proclaims that God is Love 'to the end' has to bear witness to love: in loving devotion to the suffering, in the rejection of hatred and enmity - this is the social dimension of the Christian faith, of which I spoke in the Encyclical 'Deus caritas est'.

"So if the arduous task of working for faith, hope and love in the world is presently (and, in various ways, always) the Church's real priority, then part of this is also made up of acts of reconciliation, small and not so small. That the quiet gesture of extending a hand gave rise to a huge uproar, and thus became exactly the opposite of a gesture of reconciliation, is a fact which we must accept. But I ask now: Was it, and is it, truly wrong in this case to meet half-way the brother who 'has something against you' and to seek reconciliation? Should not civil society also try to forestall forms of extremism and to incorporate their eventual adherents - to the extent possible - in the great currents shaping social life, and thus avoid their being segregated, with all its consequences? Can it be completely mistaken to work to break down obstinacy and narrowness, and to make space for what is positive and retrievable for the whole? I myself saw, in the years after 1988, how the return of communities which had been separated from Rome changed their interior attitudes; I saw how returning to the bigger and broader Church enabled them to move beyond one-sided positions and broke down rigidity so that positive energies could emerge for the whole. Can we be totally indifferent about a community which has 491 priests, 215 seminarians, 6 seminaries, 88 schools, 2 university-level institutes, 117 religious brothers, 164 religious sisters and thousands of lay faithful? Should we casually let them drift farther from the Church? I think for example of the 491 priests. We cannot know how mixed their motives may be. All the same, I do not think that they would have chosen the priesthood if, alongside various distorted and unhealthy elements, they did not have a love for Christ and a desire to proclaim Him and, with Him, the living God. Can we simply exclude them, as representatives of a radical fringe, from our pursuit of reconciliation and unity? What would then become of them?

"Certainly, for some time now, and once again on this specific occasion, we have heard from some representatives of that community many unpleasant things - arrogance and presumptuousness, an obsession with one-sided positions, etc. Yet to tell the truth, I must add that I have also received a number of touching testimonials of gratitude which clearly showed an openness of heart. But should not the great Church also allow herself to be generous in the knowledge of her great breadth, in the knowledge of the promise made to her? Should not we, as good educators, also be capable of overlooking various faults and making every effort to open up broader vistas? And should we not admit that some unpleasant things have also emerged in Church circles? At times one gets the impression that our society needs to have at least one group to which no tolerance may be shown; which one can easily attack and hate. And should someone dare to approach them - in this case the Pope - he too loses any right to tolerance; he too can be treated hatefully, without misgiving or restraint.

"Dear Brothers, during the days when I first had the idea of writing this letter, by chance, during a visit to the Roman Seminary, I had to interpret and comment on Galatians 5:13-15. I was surprised at the directness with which that passage speaks to us about the present moment: 'Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. But if you bite and devour one another, take heed that you are not consumed by one another'. I am always tempted to see these words as another of the rhetorical excesses which we occasionally find in St. Paul . To some extent that may also be the case. But sad to say, this 'biting and devouring' also exists in the Church today, as expression of a poorly understood freedom. Should we be surprised that we too are no better than the Galatians? That at the very least we are threatened by the same temptations? That we must always learn anew the proper use of freedom? And that we must always learn anew the supreme priority, which is love? The day I spoke about this at the Major Seminary, the feast of Our Lady of Trust was being celebrated in Rome . And so it is: Mary teaches us trust. She leads us to her Son, in Whom all of us can put our trust. He will be our guide - even in turbulent times. And so I would like to offer heartfelt thanks to all the many bishops who have lately offered me touching tokens of trust and affection, and above all assured me of their prayers. My thanks also go to all the faithful who in these days have given me testimony of their constant fidelity to the Successor of St. Peter. May the Lord protect all of us and guide our steps along the way of peace. This is the prayer that rises up instinctively from my heart at the beginning of this Lent, a liturgical season particularly suited to interior purification, one which invites all of us to look with renewed hope to the light which awaits us at Easter

"With a special Apostolic Blessing, I remain Yours in the Lord". Benedict XVI


VATICAN CITY, 12 MAR 2009 (VIS) - In an explanatory note accompanying the Holy Father's Letter to bishops of the Catholic Church concerning the remission of the excommunication of the four bishops consecrated by Archbishop Lefebvre, Holy See Press Office Director Fr. Federico Lombardi S.J. explains that "it is an unusual document worthy of great attention. Never before in his pontificate has Benedict XVI expressed himself so personally and intensely on a matter of public debate".

"The Pope experienced the ... remission of the excommunication and the consequent reactions with evident concern and suffering", and felt the obligation "to intervene in order to contribute to peace in the Church".

"With his habitual lucidity and humility he recognises the limitations and errors that had a negative influence on the affair, and with great nobility he does not seek to attribute the responsibility for them to others, but expresses solidarity with his collaborators. He speaks of inadequate information in the Williamson case and of insufficient clarity in explaining the procedure and significance of remitting excommunication".

The Williamson case, "fortunately now surpassed", gives the Pope "an opportunity to recall with satisfaction" that moves towards reconciliation with Jews, "beginning with Vatican Council II, is something his own 'work as a theologian had sought from the beginning to take part in and support'".

Above all, however, the Holy Father wishes "to clarify the nature, significance and aims of the remission of excommunication. He explains that since the excommunication was a punishment for individuals who had performed an act that put the unity of the Church at risk by failing to recognise the authority of the Pope, now - after the individuals concerned have expressed their recognition of the Pope's authority - the remission of the excommunication is a warm invitation for them to return to unity".

"Benedict XVI is profoundly aware of his responsibility as pastor of the universal Church and feels the need to give his brothers in the episcopate unambiguous clarification ... of the priorities and spirit with which he is undertaking his service". These are: "leading men and women to God, the God Who speaks in the Bible and in Christ; unity among Christians; dialogue among believers in God in the service of peace; witness of charity in the social dimension of Christian life.

"The Pope continues his considerations", Fr. Lombardi adds in his note, "by inviting his interlocutors to serious reflection, at both the personal and the ecclesial level. The paradoxical fact that a gesture that aimed to be merciful and conciliatory actually created a situation of acute tension, means we must ask questions to discern what spiritual attitudes where ... at work in this case", he says.

Moved by his "deep concern for unity", Benedict XVI does not lose his "critical realism" as he recalls "the grave defects of many of the traditionalists' statements"; yet he reserves the same critical realism "for the members of the Church and society who meet all efforts of reconciliation, or even of the recognition of positive elements in others, with rigid intransigence".

The Pope's Letter concludes, says Fr. Lombardi, "by reiterating an impassioned appeal for love as the absolute priority for Christians, and by expressing a hope for peace in the community of the Church".