Pope John Paul II's AIDS Legacy

Encomiums are pouring forth in the wake of the Pope’s passing. And there is much to be proud of: his direct approach to the Holocaust, his role in the transition from Communism in Eastern Europe, and his passionate focus on poverty.

But it’s also worth remembering that at a time when the world faced the biggest epidemic since the Black Plague of the 14th century, Pope John Paul II inveighed against condoms – the only known way of stopping AIDS being passed between two people having sex. We can be sure that of the 34 million people who have AIDS today, some of them are Catholics who got the disease because they obeyed the Pope’s injunction not to wear a condom (incidentally, this injunction is almost universally ignored by Italians, who have one of the lowest birthrates in the world).

How many African and Latin American Catholics have AIDS because of the Catholic Church’s anti-AIDS policy? Perhaps hundreds of thousands, maybe millions. Methinks enough that it should feature in any reasonable discussion of the Pope’s legacy. The Catholic Church has a wonderful tradition of social justice. But given what was done on AIDS, I find it hard to take the view that Pope John Paul II left the world a better place.

Update, 13 April: Emily Maguire makes a similar argument in today’s SMH.

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13 Responses to Pope John Paul II's AIDS Legacy

  1. Sinclair Davidson says:

    I don’t know about this. Yes the Pope did ban condoms, and many in the third world (and elsewhere) don’t use condoms but I don’t think the two are really related.

  2. Yobbo says:

    Wha? As in people, no matter how religious, don’t really give a shit what the church says when it comes to sex. The lack of condom use and spread of AIDS in developing Catholic countries is no more pronounced than in non-catholic developing countries like Thailand or India.

    The Phillipines, which is predominantly Catholic, has significantly lower rates of infection than neighboring Buddhist Thailand. I think what you’ll find is that Catholic Filipinos will never wear a condom with their wife, but will readily wear one in the whorehouse (since they’re already sinning anyway, why take the risk?)

    The rates of infection of Africa are highest of all, where Catholicism isn’t anywhere near the dominant religon. Africa is split about 40/40/20 between Christianity, Islam and Traditional Beliefs, but I’m not sure what percentage of the Christians are Catholic.

    People’s behaviour is not governed solely by the church. Even in countries where many have been converted to Christianity or Islam, the locals still retain a great deal of their traditional beliefs and culture, and mix it with some nice artistic crosses and holy communion.

  3. Yobbo says:

    I should also add that in many developing countries where death from Infant mortality, Murder, Starvation, Malaria, and what-have-you are still relatively commonplace, people simply don’t care as much about a disease they don’t really understand – and could take 20 years to kill them.

    If you’re only likely to live to 40 anyway, who cares if you catch something that might kill you when you’re 45? Let the good times roll!

  4. Andrew Leigh says:

    Yobbo, Kenya is an obvious counterargument (and one which was the subject of a BBC Panorama documentary recently). It is 33% Catholic, and has a very high AIDS rate (15%).

    Also, you’ll recall the comments awhile back by Colombian Cardinal Trujillo, who was unrebuked by the Vatican when he said that condoms do not stop the transmission of the AIDS virus. I find it difficult to believe that this had zero impact on behaviour.

  5. Sinclair Davidson says:

    The case of Africa is not supportive of your argument. AIDS is Africa is caused by having multiple sex partners (something, I think the church disapproves of) and without protection. Apparently, it goes against cultural values and norms for men to wear condoms.

  6. Yobbo says:

    Botswana (85% practicing indigenous beliefs, 15% Christian). AIDS rate 37.3%

    Swaziland (20% Catholic, 10% Muslim, 30% Protestant/Jewish, 40% Indigenous Beliefs) – AIDS rate 38.8%

    Zimbabwe (75% some form of indigenous beliefs with or without elements of Christianity) AIDS rate 24.6%.

    From these stats it looks like Kenya is an exception to the rule. Not surprising the BBC decided to focus there.

  7. Yobbo says:

    A more interesting case study is Nigeria. With a population 50% Muslim and 40% Christian, it has one of the lowest AIDS rates in sub-saharan Africa at 5.4%.

    Only 10% in Nigeria follow traditional beliefs. (All these stats from the CIA world factbook).Maybe the religion to blame is closer to home for the Africans.

  8. Andrew Leigh says:

    Um, guys, I think you might be criticising an argument that’s different from the one I made. I wasn’t arguing that the Pope bore responsibility for every AIDS case — merely that his policies must surely have led to new infections. Of course, it might be that every Catholic is either monogamous or ignores the Pope’s views on condoms. I just suspect this isn’t the case.

  9. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Okay, but then your point is much much weaker.

  10. Andrew Leigh says:

    True, my point is indeed weaker than the much stronger point that I didn’t make.

  11. Geoff Robinson says:

    Why do people (all presumably with uni degrees) struggle with the simple idea that events have multiple causes (remember the ‘root causes’ nonsense about S11) ? I would be surprised if rates of condom usage had no statistically significant relation to religious belief. Some basic OLS or logistic work would resolve this.

  12. Andrew Leigh says:

    Geoff, I considered doing some OLS on this, but two problems stopped me: (1) I couldn’t find a good data source on condom use. (2) There’s very little intra-country variation in %Catholic, and cross-sectional regressions are fraught with the problem that there’s a lot of unobservables at the country level.

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