Thursday, March 19, 2009

AIDS in Africa

This is what Pope Benedict said a couple days ago, in Cameroon, with regard to the AIDS crisis and how to solve it.

"If there is no soul, if Africans do not help themselves, the scourge of AIDS cannot be resolved by the distribution of prophylactics: to the contrary, the risk is to augment the problem. The solution can be found only in twin labors: the first, a humanization of sexuality, that is a spiritual and human renewal that brings with it a new way of behaving with one another, and second, also a true friendship most of all for suffering people, the availability, also with sacrifices, with personal renouncements, in order to be with the suffering."

Naturally, the American mass media, which gets the vapors when anyone makes any kind of challenge- from the right or the left- to the cosmopolitan culture of late-capitalist liberal civilization of which it sees itself as the foremost defender, got the vapors at this too. "The Pope forbids the use of condoms to fight AIDS" they have been saying. With the implication, of course, that this shows what an outmoded, benighted reactionary Benedict XVI is. Surely nowadays, the knowing and worldly readers of the New York Times have moved beyond such medieval prejudices. We know that sex is just a fun pastime, like bowling only messier. Lobbing a few condoms around will make it good, clean fun for everyone, and what could be the harm? The more the merrier. We are educated people of the 21st century. Who needs things like fidelity and restraint? We are smart enough to invent technical fixes to our problems. Insecticides to get rid of insect plagues, and condoms to get rid of AIDS.

Well, no. First of all, I should start by saying that the mass media's misquotation of Benedict XVI is beyond misleading- in a just society it would be considered criminally libelous. (Whether it was libelous out of malice or ignorance I don't know, but probably the latter). Of course Benedict XVI opposes condoms, in general, on the grounds that they separate the unitive and procreative aspects of the sex act, and thus do violence to nature. The Catholic church has taken a firm stand against artificial birth control since its inception (a stand that, for reasons I've made clear in the past, I disagree with). But what he didn't say, in the quote attributed to him, is that condoms do nothing to prevent the transmission of disease. Read the line once again.

He's saying that the heart of any effective effort to counter HIV in Africa must focus on behavior change. And he's correct. I've lived in Madagascar, and from what I hear from people who have lived or spent time in Africa, the sexual mores are not that different. Which is to say, deeply in crisis. Men who are traveling away from their wives for as little as a weekend often go to a prostitute to entertain themselves. Men will have one or two wives and a couple of girlfriends, all concurrently. Girls often enter sexual relationships with older men when they're only in their early teens. Prostitution is widely socially accepted. Women lack the social power to insist on birth control. Sex is often considered as casually as shaking hands. And so on.

You don't have to be a believer in the strict Catholic position on sexual morals (I'm not) to think this is deeply problematic. Let's leave aside the emotional and spiritual damage this kind of promiscuity does to the people involved: from a disease prevention point of view, it's really, really unhealthy. Even if condoms have only a 1% failure rate, if one sleeps with enough people then the chances of getting a disease are not insignificant. The best ways to prevent STDs, it should be obvious, are by reducing one's number of partners.

It would be different if we were talking about a country like Sweden, or somewhere in Latin America. Those societies are far from traditionalist Catholic sexual morals, but they're also far from the kind of promiscuity that characterizes many African societies. In the African context, however, behavior change is the sine qua non of any effective effort to reduce HIV incidence. As long as sexual behavior remains unchanged, throwing condoms into the mix will simply make little difference. It's like throwing a band-aid on a deep wound, and at worse, if it encourages more promiscuity, it could actually increase disease transmission. Remember when everyone thought abortion would decrease illegitimacy rates? It actually accomplished the opposite.

Let me be clear here. I disapprove somewhat of condoms, as I think they're qualitatively different than hormonal birth control, but I don't have any problem with the Pill. The Pill was designed to mimic the natural hormonal changes following pregnancy, and it suppresses fertility through hormonal mechanisms in a similar way to how lactation does. Moreover, it does not impose a physical barrier between a couple- the man and woman are still sharing their entire bodies with each other. Condoms are different, as they interpose a physical barrier and thus detract not simply from the procreative but also from the unitive aspect of sexuality. They are thus, 'against nature' in a sense that birth control pills aren't (and, it must be said, they also facilitate casual liaisons, which the Pill doesn't). I also disapprove, of course, of casual sex. While I don't think a couple needs to be married in order to licitly have intercourse, they should be in a long-term, loving, monogamous relationship. If a relationship is characterized by 'caritas' as well as by 'eros', then it seems to me that it can legitimately be a locus for the sexual act. However, casual liaisons are right out.

This is my understanding of what Christ would have us do; it's of course a liberal interpretation of Christian sexual morals by any historic interpretation, but I believe on reflection that it's the true one. However, if you insist on breaking even this attenuated code, based on natural law and my understanding of scripture and my interpretation of tradition, then in my opinion you're doing something wrong. It would be better not to add another wrong (risking the spread of disease) to the first wrong, and so in such circumstances I would suggest that if you ARE going to have casual sex, then you should use condoms. But the better rule is not to have casual sex in the first place. Stay within the context of serious relationships- not necessarily procreative marriages, but at least open to flowering into procreative marriages- and use a combination of the pill, natural family planning, or both- and your risk of disease will be minimal. I don't think this is an inconsistent message: "Don't have casual sex, but if you do, then use condoms." Many vegetarians would say the same, for example, about chickens: "Don't kill chickens for food, but if you must, then at least don't keep them in horrible factory-farm conditions beforehand."

In short, behavior change has to come first. Condoms can serve as a third-best option for those who refuse to follow what, I think, natural law suggests. But the best alternative is to have sex only in the context of serious relationships, and to be faithful to your partner. For young people under 18 or so, of course, the best alternative is not to have sex at all. I don't think morality requires us to abstain till marriage. But I do think that you should abstain until you are a legal adult. That is why the anti-HIV programs in Africa that have WORKED, stress abstinence first, then fidelity, and then condoms.

It should be clear from all this that in part I disagree with Pope Benedict, but in part I also agree with him. If there is no soul, i.e. if we approach sexuality first and foremost as a health issue rather than a moral and spiritual issue, then we will get neither health nor spirituality: all we will do is make the problem worse. One doesn't need to be a Catholic or to agree with traditionalist Catholic sexual morality to accept this. Even though Benedict is wrong about some things, his opponents among the liberal establishment are much wronger. It is their Eden of casual sex which exists in Africa right now, and that's precisely the problem.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Cyclone Relief in Madagascar

If you want to donate to relief efforts for Cyclone Fanele in Madagascar, you can do this through Catholic Relief Services. You can earmark a donation so the money goes to Madagascar cyclone relief. They are currently working in a strip down the west coast of Madagascar, including the cities of Morondava and Manja as well as, I think, surrounding rural areas.

They are, among other things, distributing food, medicine, soap, and clothes, and also trying to help repair infrastructure. Please send a donation, if you can. The cyclone hit the town of Morondava, which I know well and where I have a lot of friends and coworkers. About 80% of homes were partially damaged and 15% obliterated entirely. It's very, very sad.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A meditation on the Temptation of Christ

This is the time of the year, Lent, when we commemmorate the days that Our Lord spent in the desert: fasting, meditating and praying in advance of beginning His three-year mission, that was to culminate in His saving death. And being tempted, and overcoming temptation: three temptations above all, representing the world, the flesh and the devil. Here is the account that St. Luke the Evangelist gives:

And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan and was led by the Spirit i
nto the wilderness, Being forty days tempted of the Devil. And in those days he did eat nothing: and when they were ended, he afterward hungered. And the devil said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread. And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God. And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan; for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. And he brought him to the holy city, and set him on pinnacle of the temple, and said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence: For it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee: And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. And Jesus answering said unto him, It is also said, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. And when the devil had ended all the temptation he departed from him for a season.

Now Luke was writing his gospel in an effort to be historically accurate, and we are bound, I think, to accept what he said as history. There is room for metaphorical interpretation about other things, but not about this. Christ was really tempted, in a real desert, by a real devil, and he really overcame these temptations. And in so doing, he gave us an example of faith and virtue that is eternally relevant, to our age and to every age- and, indirectly, told us much about the nature of good and evil. Here we see, more clearly than anywhere else in the Bible, the conflict of God and the Enemy in the most personal form, confronting one another. We can learn much about physical and biological phenomena by studying how organisms function in their absence, and likewise we can learn much about good by observing evil, and vice versa. It was a minor 'unclean spirit', a pitiful little demon, who was the first to recognize Christ for who and what He was: Let us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? art thou come to destroy us? I know thee who thou art, the Holy One of God. We could not fully understand light if there was no such thing as darkness, and we cannot understand God fully without considering his Enemy: For the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not.

One interesting thing about the three temptations is that none of the gifts that the devil offered was intrinsically a bad thing. The devil offered him the gift of creating food out of nothing, of winning converts through miracles, and of reforming the world by achieving temporal power. Each of these gifts was something that, in the fulness of time, Christ would attain, either in his own person or through his disciples. There would come a day when Christ would create food not just for himself but for five thousand followers- hungry and poor men, women and children, who probably seldom had enough to eat, and who craved someone who would nourish their bodies as well as their souls. Then he took the five loaves and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven he blessed them, and brake, and gave to the disciples to set before the multitude. And they did eat, and were all filled: and there was taken up of fragments that remained to them twelve baskets. There would come a day, too, when people all over the world would be converted by a miracle. He refused, on the pinnacle of the temple, to prove himself by triumphing over physical injury: but there would come a day when he would triumph over death itself, and where the miracle of Easter would convert a third of the world. There would come a day when, for a time, the eagle was united with the dove, and the Cross flew over Constantine's legions and their heirs for a thousand years, and left, even today, the lasting idea that love and mercy should govern the world no less than the church; and we are told by the Beloved Disciple that there will come something even greater, a day when out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron. Such was the dream of Joachim of Fiora, of Thomas More, and of all the other men and women throughout the age who have dreamed of an age when men shall be ruled by love.

The Ultimate Enemy is, if nothing else, possessed of deep wisdom- and worse, wisdom untrammeled by love, justice, or mercy. He was wise enough not to offer Jesus temptations that were intrinsically immoral- to feast on the finest delicacies of Rome, to debauch himself with girls and young boys in the brothels of Athens, to drape himself in purple like a Babylonian king and send men to die in the gladiatorial arena. Rather, he tempted him with things that were intrinsically good. So often, evil consists not in choosing evil things: it consists (sometimes) in pursuing things that are good, but in the wrong place, under the wrong circumstances, at the wrong time. If Jesus had fed himself in the desert, he would yielded to the needs of his flesh instead of overcoming and conquering them, and would not have restored- on behalf of fallen humanity- the proper balance between body and spirit that was lost with the fall. (Obviously I don't believe in a literal Adam and Eve, a literal garden of Eden: but I do believe that there was a day, very early in human prehistory, when the first beings to have been gifted with a conscious and potentially immortal soul, make the decision to seek their own desires instead of God's, and in doing so fell from grace and became subject once again to the flesh). If Christ had accepted the temptation to prove His divinity by a miracle, then He would have robbed humanity of the gift of faith: for faith cannot exist where there is proof. For faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the knowledge of things unseen. If Christ had, then and there, accepted kingship He could not have died the death he was destined to die, and could not thus have saved humanity. And he could not have fully redeemed and ennobled humanity in the way He meant to, if He had ruled over them instead of inspiring Christian leaders to emerge from within humanity itself.

Consider, again, what this tells us about the Tempter. If this temptation is to mean something, if the life of Christ is to mean something, if the Crucifixion and all the suffering and bloodshed that has taken place in the name of Christ has been "worth it", then the temptation must have been real. If it wasn't, if the devil was shamming and Christ knew it, then his temptations have nothing to say to ours: our tragedy becomes his farce, and He is nothing more than the divine trickster. If Christ truly shared our suffering, if He really shared our nature, if He really shared our temptations, then the evil power must have been offering him something he desired, and He must have chosen to give something up for the sake of the higher good. And if the temptation was real, then the gifts that the devil offered must have been real too. When the devil offered him all the kingdoms of the world, I believe he was offering a gift that he really possessed. He was smart enough not to lie to Christ, and he told him the truth.

The truth, but not all the truth. This world belongs to both God and the evil power: therein lies the problem of evil, as it has been posed for thousands of years, and it's a problem to which I have no solution. "I make the darkness and the light" said Isaiah to Cyrus; but in this, I think, Isaiah was wrong and Cyrus, the Zoroastrian, was right.

Did He who made the lamb make thee? said Blake of his 'Tyger', and his question remains unanswered. In the first century, people looked at the fall of Jerusalem as evidence that this world was under the domination of evil; people thought the same at the fall of Rome in the fifth century, the coming of the black plague in the fourteenth century, the fall of the greatest city in Christendom in the fifteenth century, and all the black atrocities that our human race has committed against each other in the last few centuries. Indeed, if God rules this world and orders it to His pleasure, then how can we explain things like the fall of Constantinople? The Holocaust? How can we explain the AIDS virus, earthquakes, hurricanes? And how can we explain evolution itself? Is such a bloody, wasteful process, 'nature red in tooth and claw', the world that the Father made through the agency of the Son and his angels? Is a world in which the fittest survive and mercilessly crowd out the unfit, truly the 'best of all possible worlds'?

I don't think so, and I think in this regard the Christians of the first century were wiser than the fuzzy religious believers of today who see the world as a happy, joyous place. St. Luke was right: this world is under the domination of evil, and when the evil power offered Christ his place at the head of it, he was making a genuine offer. This universe was created by God, of course: the Nicene creed says so, as does the Gospel of John. Maker of heaven and earth. But from its beginning, evil has had a place in it, and eventually that evil grew and grew until everything that we see today- the process of evolution that underlies biology, the processes of entropy that underly chemistry- is in some sense tainted and corrupt.

But in the long run, this doesn't matter. We have an assurance that something in this world still persists with the memory of the one who created it. We have the assurance that one day this world will be made whole, and that every temptation that Christ denied at the hand of the devil- to create food, to overcome death, to rule with a rod of iron- He will accept at the hand of the Father. And we have the assurance that this world- this world where our bodies disobey our souls and cry out for things that aren't good for us, this world in which evil men rule over the good, and send innocent people to slavery and death, this world from which God seems so distant and millions of us cry out for miracles that we may believe, and don't find them.....that ultimately, all this will pass away and be transcended. In this world, says Christ, ye shall have tribulation. But fear not: I have overcome the world.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.