Flash! Vatican opposes birth control

hope-pope1On the same day that Roman Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput was critiquing media coverage of the church, we got a real time example of some less-than-stellar religion reporting. Pope Benedict XVI landed in Africa this week and received breathless coverage because, as Amy Welborn put it over at Beliefnet, "the Pope has not booked a seat on the condom train." Here is a sampling of headlines:

Pope criticised for 'dangerous' comments on condoms A Pope who seems fallible Pope says condoms are not the solution to Aids - they make it worse

You can scan the thousand+ other articles on his comments that are circling the globe here. Some are punditry but a lot of them are ostensibly news stories.

Much of the coverage is quite emotional. Instead of highlighting all the bad coverage, lets look at a story that was better than average, filed for Reuters. Here's how it begins:

Pope Benedict on Tuesday reaffirmed the Roman Catholic Church's opposition to the use of condoms in the fight against AIDS as he started a visit to Africa, where more than 25 million people have died from the disease in recent decades.

The Pope, who arrived to a tumultuous welcome in the capital of Cameroon, also said the continent's people were suffering disproportionately due to the global challenges of food shortages, financial crises and climate change.

"It (AIDS) cannot be overcome by the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, they increase the problem," he said in response to a question about the Church's widely contested position against the use of condoms.

While that lede could do more to put the Pope's comments in context, the rest of the story goes on to explain the church's position on sexuality. And the story provides an additional quote from Benedict about the theology of the body and how the church is engaged in a spiritual response.

There are many angles to pursue here from a media criticism standpoint. A transcript of the comments which were given in Italian -- you can read versions of the transcript here or here -- show that the Pope was defending the efficacy of church teaching. In response to a question from a journalist about whether the church's doctrinal position is effective, Benedict says that sexual morality encouraged by the church is the most effective presence in the battle against HIV/AIDS. He argues that spiritual renewal bringing a new way of behaving towards your neighbor is what helps bring visible progress while condom distribution risks worsening the problem.

Richard Owen at the Times (U.K.) says that the transcript of the event was altered. I don't know if that's true or not but I do know that his first paragraph for that story is embarrassing for any religion reporter, much less one who covers the Vatican. It makes me doubt every word that follows:

The Vatican backtracked yesterday on the Pope's rejection of condoms as a means of preventing Aids -- a decision interpreted by some as a rare admission of papal fallibility.

Um, someone needs to sit Mr. Owen down and explain to him the very basic concept of papal infallibility. How in the world can you be a Vatican reporter and not know the easy stuff? And how does the Times expect readers to trust him on stuff of greater significance? Someone send him Chaput's remarks, STAT.

Apart from whether the Pope's remarks were hyped for dramatic purpose as opposed to treated seriously and placed in context, there's also the bizarre assumption evident in so much coverage that the Pope somehow said something wrong. (Incidentally, for a look at how the folks at the Washington Post/Newsweek "On Faith" venture thought the matter should be handled, you will have to check out this piece calling for the impeachment of the Pope for misogyny and the "deadly sin" of opposition to birth control.)

Since we're all about science trumping morality these days, it might have been nice to see the inclusion of comments on the matter from experts who agree with the Pope. Edward Green, director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, for instance, wrote last year:

In fact, the mainstream HIV/AIDS community has continued to champion condom use as critical in all types of HIV epidemics, in spite of the evidence. While high rates of condom use have contributed to fewer infections in some high-risk populations (prostitutes in concentrated epidemics, for instance), the situation among Africa's general populations remains much different. It has been clearly established that few people outside a handful of high-risk groups use condoms consistently, no matter how vigorously condoms are promoted. Inconsistent condom usage is ineffective--and actually associated with higher HIV infection rates due to "risk compensation," the tendency to take more sexual risks out of a false sense of personal safety that comes with using condoms some of the time. A UNAIDS-commissioned 2004 review of evidence for condom use concluded, "There are no definite examples yet of generalized epidemics that have been turned back by prevention programs based primarily on condom promotion." A 2000 article in The Lancet similarly stated, "Massive increases in condom use world-wide have not translated into demonstrably improved HIV control in the great majority of countries where they have occurred."

Faith communities are not shutting their eyes to evidence when they choose to emphasize the "core recommended strategy of abstinence before marriage and faithfulness within marriage." These behaviors have, in fact, proved far more effective than condom use in curbing HIV transmission for the vast majority of any population. A 2001 study of condom use in rural Uganda found that only 4.4 percent of the population reported consistent usage in the previous year, a rate that is probably typical of much of Africa. In contrast to the estimated 95 percent or more of Africans who did not practice consistent condom use in the past year, studies from all over Africa show a solid majority of men and women reporting fidelity over the past year, with a majority of unmarried young men and women reporting abstinence. . . .

Thus far, research has produced no evidence that condom promotion--or indeed any of the range of risk-reduction interventions popular with donors--has had the desired impact on HIV-infection rates at a population level in high-prevalence generalized epidemics. This is true for treatment of sexually ­transmitted infections, voluntary counseling and testing, diaphragm use, use of experimental vaginal microbicides, safer-sex counseling, and even income--generation projects. The interventions relying on these measures have failed to decrease HIV-infection rates, whether implemented singly or as a package. One recent randomized, controlled trial in Zimbabwe found that even possible synergies that might be achieved through "integrated implementation" of "control strategies" had no impact in slowing new infections at the population level. In fact, in this trial there was a somewhat higher rate of new infections in the intervention group compared to the control group.

Now, strategies for fighting sexually transmitted diseases are some of the most contentiously fought political issues out there. But why should the mainstream media act like the Pope doesn't know what he's talking about when, in fact, there's not insubstantial evidence to suggest the church's approach is quite effective?

In his discussion with the media this week, Chaput suggested a variety of reasons for bad reporting. I wonder if some of those he listed, such as hostility to the church's teaching about sexuality or unresolved authority issues, come into play here.

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