16 February 2012

The Church and AIDS in Africa

It’s rare that I lose my temper, but I got indignant a few weeks ago when a friend declared that the Catholic Church has nothing to offer today’s world. Normally I’d dismiss such nonsense with a shrug, but caught at an off moment I exploded.

‘You don’t think that being the world’s second-largest international development body and its second-largest aid organisation is a good thing? You don’t think this is useful? You’d like the world’s largest single healthcare provider to stop helping people? You’d rather that the quarter of all African hospitals the Church runs were shut? You’d rather that healthcare and education provided by the Church, which play a crucial role in Sub-Saharan African countries with largely Catholic populations having lower HIV and AIDS rates than other sub-Saharan countries, were stopped?’
None of this even touched on the truth of the Church’s teaching or the reality of the sacraments, but my friend’s an atheist and would never have accepted that. I continued to rant, culminating with a question that no decent person could ever answer in the negative: ‘You don’t think it’s good to help the poor, the sick, the disabled, the old, the young, and the dying?’

Rhetoric aside, it wasn’t one of my finer moments. To my friend’s credit, he didn’t answer with the clichéd calumnies that the Church only helps Catholics, or only helps people with a view to them becoming Catholics. These are common myths, and completely false; Benedict XVI, in his first encyclical, 2006’s Deus Caritas Est, reminded us how our love must be unconditional, and specifically warned us against using charity as an evangelical Trojan Horse.

‘Love is free,’ he said, ‘it is not practised as a way of achieving other ends... Those who practise charity in the Church’s name will never seek to impose the Church’s faith upon others.’

I got thinking about this discussion in London recently, when at Mass to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Catholic Agency For Overseas Development. The English equivalent of our own Trócaire, CAFOD is the official Catholic aid agency for England and Wales.

A friend of mine, frustrated by inadequate government responses to the famine in east Africa, is running the London Marathon in April to raise money for CAFOD and had been invited to the Mass; knowing I was down she asked if I’d be coming too, so I joined her, her parents, and about 2,500 others in a packed Westminster Cathedral.

In his homily, Bishop John Arnold, Chair of CAFOD’s board of trustees, spoke of CAFOD’s achievements in 46 countries, citing among his examples businesses run by women survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, orphans of the Rwandan genocide growing with a sense of self-determination, and new homes for the dispossessed Sri Lankan victims of 2004’s Indian Ocean tsunami.

The key to CAFOD’s work, he said, is ‘partnership with local people, local communities – working to bring about change together’. CAFOD’s approach – supporting rather than supplanting local organisations – is shared with Trócaire and more than 160 other organisations in Caritas Internationalis, the Church’s confederation of relief and development agencies.

Rather than ‘parachuting’ in help from abroad, CAFOD and similar organisations work to empower local bodies, such that the Church’s relief and development work is usually carried out on the ground by local people who use local knowledge to address local needs.

This principle – that decisions should be taken and actions carried out at the lowest possible level – is a profoundly Catholic one, and one that people all too often fail to grasp; the wrongheaded notion that the Church is a single centralised organisation with a clear hierarchy is something that blights the popular understanding of the Church. In practical terms, the Church is best understood as a loose network in which almost everything other than doctrinal teaching tends to be bottom-up rather than top-down.

Given the vast range of challenges facing the developing world, Bishop Arnold explained how CAFOD has had to develop its own expertise in areas as diverse as livelihoods, nutrition, advocacy, climate change, and HIV/AIDS. The last of these, of course, is the subject of yet another of the modern world’s most poisonous anti-Catholic myths.

In the aftermath of John Paul II’s death in 2005, the now-discredited Johann Hari decreed in the Independent that ‘the Pope’s response to the greatest threat to human life in our times – AIDS in Africa – was to make it far worse,’ while the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee joined him in insisting that ‘with its ban on condoms the church has caused the death of millions’.

Richard Dawkins in March 2010 described Benedict XVI as ‘a man whose preaching of scientific falsehood is responsible for the deaths of countless AIDS victims in Africa,’ and when Benedict visited Britain later that year, Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science and another supposed devotee of evidence-based reasoning, pronounced the Church to be ‘a serious global public health problem’.

They’re by no means the only people to have made such claims. It might be asking a lot, but I wish people would refrain from exploiting human tragedies to bolster their pet prejudices and instead take a look at some basic facts. Statistics in Africa aren’t always quite as precise as we’d like them to be, but we can say this.

In Sub-Saharan Africa there are nine countries where Catholics make up more than a third of the population. With the exception of tiny Lesotho, surrounded by AIDS-ravaged South Africa, not one of these is among the nine countries where more than one-in-ten people suffers from HIV/AIDS.

Although Catholics comprise roughly half the population of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, only 1.4 per cent of the population carry the HIV virus; that’s a tragically large number of people, of course, but it’s worth contrasting it with the more than 17 per cent of South Africans similarly afflicted, in a country where barely 6 per cent of the population are Catholic.

There’s no correlation between Catholicism and AIDS in Africa; if anything the opposite appears to be the case. Only those determined to ignore evidence in favour of blind faith in the salvific powers of condoms claim otherwise. Far from making the situation in Africa worse, Catholic organisations may well be doing more than any other organisations to make things better.

This shouldn’t make us complacent, but it should help give us confidence to act, as Bishop Arnold said in his homily, as ‘ambassadors for Christ’. We’re the Body of Christ and shouldn’t be afraid to carry on His work.

We have a lot to offer the world.

-- from The Irish Catholic, 9 February 2012

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