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The papal conclave started yesterday, and many progressives—both inside and outside the Church—are praying that an African be elected.
Though their main candidate, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, is likely to be passed over in favor of a Westerner, the wishes of the liberal bloc are reasonable, at least in a basic sense. For every U.S. resident that joins the Church, four leave; European Catholics are fleeing even faster, and growth in Latin America is anemic. Africa is the only continent where Catholicism is expanding as a proportion of the population, and it is doing so exponentially. Assuming that the Church’s leadership should reflect the changing demographics of its laypeople, the election of an African seems fair.
What’s more, one shouldn’t underestimate the symbolism of an African pope. Coming off the stodgy, conservative—some would say reactionary—tenure of Benedict XVI, the first-ever ascension of a Sub-Saharan to the papacy would be bold riposte to those that accuse the Vatican of Eurocentrism.
Just this mere possibility, that a non-white, non-European might be the new Bishop of Rome, has stirred progressive Catholics the world over, be they columnists or demonstrators outside the Holy See.
I wish I could be so excited. I wish I honestly believed that this transition might be a substantively positive development for African Catholics. But the fact of the matter is that the election of an African will do nothing to change the Vatican’s reactionary stances on contraception and homosexuality—stances that lead to the death and estrangement of hundreds of thousands of Sub-Saharans every year.
The horror of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is well known, so I won’t spend too much time describing the details. Suffice it to say that well more than a million Africans die annually of AIDS, and 23 million are currently living with HIV. As a result, the average life expectancies in several nations in the region have been shortened by more than a third over the past two decades.
Unsurprisingly, the use of condoms is a proven method of combating the disease: The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization have all found a robust correlation between condom use and lowered rates of infection. One can of course argue that other methods of fighting HIV, such as sexual fidelity, are more effective. But few would argue that condoms serve no purpose in this fight at all.
Benedict XVI, however, has established himself as one of those irrational few, proclaiming during a 2009 visit to Cameroon that the “distribution of condoms…increases the problem.” He would later moderate his stance, claiming in 2010 that the use of a condom could be justified in exceptional circumstances, for example, for “male prostitutes,” but he never backed away from his rejection of condoms as a mainstream means of combating HIV.
The Catholic population of Africa has taken the Vatican’s words seriously, and many aid workers attempting to promote condom use have expressed frustration with the Church. One would hope that an African clergyman, to whom the horrors of AIDS are more immediate, would be less doctrinaire in matters of contraception. Peter Turkson of Ghana, however, is not. During a 2009 speech at the Vatican, he concurred with Benedict XVI’s remarks in Cameroon, implying that condoms worsen the problem rather than alleviate it.
In addition to Turkson’s mistrust of contraception, it’s worth mentioning his anachronistic views of homosexuals. Turkson has defended Uganda’s so-called “Kill the Gays” law , a proposed piece of legislation to criminalize homosexuality up to a capital offense, and attacked UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for his denunciation of homophobic legislation, saying in reference to gays that there exists a “distinction between morality and human rights.”
To be fair, Turkson’s statements do not reflect Church doctrine: The Vatican explicitly opposes violence as a punishment for homosexuality. But even the Church’s outdated doctrinal characterization of gays and lesbians as “disordered” and oriented “toward an intrinsic moral evil” lends a certain legitimacy to those that openly vilify homosexuality, whether they be legislators or their constituents.
I don’t mean to argue that an African pope would be bad for Africa per se. Whomever the College of Cardinals elects will likely be a conservative, so his origins hardly matter from a policy standpoint. Nor do I mean to condemn the Catholic Church as a vessel of unconditional evil in Africa: On the contrary, the Church provides shelter and comfort for many in the war-torn, impoverished stretches of the Sub-Saharan bush.
But I do mean to point out a simple truth: No matter where the next pope comes from, the Church will still be complicit in the death and mistreatment of hundreds of thousands of AIDS victims and homosexuals throughout Africa. We can continue to argue over the best skin color or national origin of the next pontificate. But compared to the effects of the policies he’ll be promoting, this debate seems awfully trivial.
J. Gram Slattery ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House.
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