Friday, May 22, 2009

How to Save a Failing Church

A Nigerian bishop, the Archbishop of Ibadan, recently became one of the many defenders of the pope’s infamously garbled pronouncement on condoms. The fact that the pope’s statement was garbled makes it easy for people to either reinterpret it in a favourable light or in an unfavourable light, whatever suits their purposes. But the problem is that the statement did not give the sort of clarity that many people seek.

Previously, the pope has opposed the use of condoms under any circumstances and advocated abstinence and fidelity as a response to the HIV pandemic. Christians sought clarification because they felt that abstinence and fidelity were great in theory but were not feasible for many people. And even if they were achievable for some, they were not necessarily achievable for their partners, for sex workers, for victims of sexual assault, etc.

Some Catholics and Christians went even further and preached that condoms had holes that allowed HIV virus through or that condoms are very unreliable or that they often burst.

So the guidance that people received from the church ranged from unfeasible to vague to untrue. It’s little wonder that Catholics and Christians were left to do what most of them have been doing for generations: using their own interpretation and doing the best they could.

But there are people who take what they hear from church leaders rather more literally, either because they feel that’s what it is to be a Catholic or Christian or because that particular course of action suits them. So there are people who waited till they were married before having sex only to be infected by their partner. Others ended up with more children than they could provide for. Others didn’t have any choice about whether to have sex, when or with whom.

The Nigerian bishop claims that the pope’s statement is about people’s sexual behaviour and that people’s sexual behaviour is behind the HIV pandemic. But if the bishop (and the pope) were to think about it a little more carefully, they would see that sexual behaviour does not occur in a vacuum. People’s behaviour and sexual behaviour are determined by other circumstances. Just as TB is airborne, you don’t prevent transmission of TB by telling people to stop breathing, so you won’t reduce HIV transmission by merely trying to legislate over people’s sexual behaviour.

For example (and it is only one example), there are many women who have no option but to have sex in exchange for money or other benefits, because they have no job or because they have too low an income; they are desperate and need the money immediately; they don’t want to have sex with strange men and expose themselves to all sorts of dangers, they have no option. Do the church leaders understand any of this?

Some women find that if they apply for jobs they have to pay a substantial amount of money to secure a position. Others find that they are expected to sleep with their boss in order to be selected for a job, to keep a job or to improve their income, sometimes very slightly. Is this even a viable alternative to commercial sex work? I don’t think so.

So if church leaders are concerned about people’s behaviour, sexual or otherwise, they should take a look at people’s circumstances, the way people live. No matter how devout people are, they need to provide for their family, for their dependents and for themselves. To criticize the pope and other church leaders for failing to see this is not polemic. Preachings that are manufactured in one of the richest states in the world have little relevance to the lives of people in the poorest states in the world.

Church leaders, firstly, take a look at the realities of people’s lives, engage with the real problems, not the ones you wish to prognosticate over; secondly, make your prognostications clear and unambiguous; thirdly, engage with debates honestly, don’t resort to the lies and fabrication which you have relied on for so long.

If you want the respect and obedience of your followers you have to earn it.

The Nigerian bishop also makes a comment about Africa being used as “a guinea pig of foreign business ventures”. This is a valid point but Africa is just as much a ‘market’ and a ‘business venture’ for the churches, too. The churches also come up with slogans and marketing campaigns because they are also businesses who stand to gain or lose large amounts of money. They compete with other business, though they may see themselves as being above business and commerce.

Finally, the bishop makes the often made remark about distributing condoms increasing the “sexual waywardness of the continents’ [sic] youth who have access to it” and promoting “sexual recklessness”. Despite the claims of various churches, distributing condoms, teaching children about sex and safe sex and various other measures, does not give rise to higher levels of unsafe sexual behaviour. On the contrary, children who know about sex and safe sex delay having sex for the first time and are more likely to take precautions when they do have sex.

If the churches really have compassion, if they really care about the welfare of their followers, they need to look at how people live, how their behaviour and sexual behaviour are determined. Human dignity is not about doctrine and dogma, it is about basic human rights. People are being denied their rights and the church would do well to address this issue, rather than shoring up their dubious philosophies with pseudo scientific claptrap.

Of course, church leaders could lead by example, observing vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, for instance. But many seem to have chosen to live in wealth. Their chastity has often been open to question. And their obedience often appears to be to political interests, commercial interests and even human desires for power, sexual gratification, etc, rather than to any spiritual authority.

Church leaders, come and live like the majority of human beings and you’ll find yourselves rewriting your vast tomes in a language that most people will readily understand.



KenyaLuv said...

You guys act like the Church is the cause of HIV/AIDS in Africa. The Church is just doing its job in telling people that abstinence is the God-given remedy. Should the church also tell people that its okay to murder as long as youre not caught? If the Church can compromise on an issue of sin, then do they have any business being there? You think AIDS will suddenly go down if the Church endorses condoms? Please, people will sin and the Church can only give guidance so stop making The Church the scapegoat. And last time I checked abstinence had worked VERY effectively in Uganda for a while so it has shown to be a very viable and effective way of preventing AIDS if a way can be found of sustaining the abstinence message.

Simon said...

I agree, the Catholic church shouldn't compromise when it comes to sin, perhaps you didn't read the link at the end of the posting. Have a look at the great work the Catholic church did in Ireland for many decades, lying about what happened, covering up abuse, trying to pay their way out and eventually having to face up to things. But not before destroying the lives of tens of thousands of people.

As for abstinence in Uganda, don't be fooled by the politically and religiously motivated margeting. Also, take a look at the HIV epidemic in Uganda as it stands now. The indicators are not good and it is thought prevalence is about to start increasing. Behaviour change was temporary, if it happened at all and the country is going to suffer because of the lies that are being spread about 'abstinence'.

You're right, people will sin, whether they are Catholic or any other demonination, whether they are a church leader or a follower. I am interested in people having the education and the wherewithal to protect themselves. Right now, many people don't have this.

voiced thots said...

Neither the church nor personal opinions will stop the HIV. @kenyaluv, you know and i know how much the church influences the actions of its folowers..their acceptance for use of condoms would really have a great impact. Simon usually has valid points,although i feel at times he is limited by his extreem social view of HIV.Abstinence always works..if employed consistently and all times and not by only one individual but by an entire society..does it look feasible in kenya? Mine is an Emphatic No!!

Simon said...

Thanks for your comments. You're right, Voiced Thots, my aim is to challenge what are the personal opinions of church leaders, who claim to be in favour of abstinence despite the fact that their very own priests and brothers fail to practice abstinence.

Abstinence only policies are not just unfeasible in Kenya, they are unfeasible everywhere. But they are more dangerous in Kenya and other developing countries because many people there are far more vulnerable, due to poverty, lack of opportunity, poor health and education, etc.

Abstinence from sex always results in zero transmission of sexually transmitted infections, that's pretty much a tautology. But telling people to abstain from sex no more influences their behaviour than telling them not to defecate.

If you find my views extreme, let me know which ones and I'll be happy to clarify.