Adventures in Ethics and Science

When, speaking to journalists about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa, you make a claim that the epidemic is:

a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which can even increase the problem

those listening who assume you are committed to honesty (because of that commandment about not bearing false witness) and that you are well-informed about the current state of our epidemiological knowledge (because, as the Pope, you have many advisors, and owing to your importance as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, leading scientists will take the time to help you understand scientific findings) may draw the conclusion that the distribution and use of condoms can make the spread of HIV worse.

In fact, the World Health Organization notes that

The evidence around use of male condoms to prevent HIV transmission is that latex condoms if used consistently and correctly are highly effective in preventing the transmission of HIV. They are not the only important prevention strategy but they are an important component of comprehensive prevention efforts worldwide in association with other interventions. Importantly, there is no scientific evidence that promoting the correct and consistent use of condoms has led to alterations in sexual behaviour or increased risk taking.

If you were not aware of these scientific conclusions when you spoke, the best ethical course at this point would be to correct your earlier claim that condom distribution and use could make the HIV/AIDS epidemic worse. To avoid future such errors, you may want to consider the extent to which your visibility and credibility as a world religious leader obligates you to consult reliable sources of scientific information before you make public statements on scientific matters.

If you were aware of these scientific conclusions when you spoke, the best ethical course at this point would be to correct your earlier claim that condom distribution and use could make the HIV/AIDS epidemic worse. There is probably also some work you need to do on the bearing false witness thing. Part of that is between you and your God, but part of that may involve apologizing to those who were trusting you to be honest and making serious efforts to win back their trust.

In either case, undoubtedly you are now aware that the scientific research contradicts your statement. Given this awareness — and the importance many members of the public give to your claims — you now have an obligation to acknowledge the contradiction between your claim and the scientific evidence. As the editors of The Lancet put it:

When any influential person, be it a religious or political leader, makes a false scientific statement that could be devastating to the health of millions of people, they should retract or correct the public record. Anything less from Pope Benedict would be an immense disservice to the public and health advocates, including many thousands of Catholics, who work tirelessly to try and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS worldwide.

Acknowledging that the scientific evidence is what it is is a matter of honesty. This is a distinct question from whether condom use is a good thing from the point of view of Catholic doctrine. The Church can still advise Catholics about their spiritual health without making misleading claims about factors influencing humans’ bodily health.

However, using lies or inaccurate claims as a way to manipulate people into accepting Catholic doctrine on condoms risks both bodily and spiritual health. Moreover, it undermines public trust and sullies the office of Pope, likely making the job harder for the next guy who has to do it.

So, Pope Benedict, I urge you to do the ethical thing, to set the record straight on what the scientific evidence says about condoms, and to make your spiritual case against condoms on strictly spiritual grounds.


  1. #1 dean
    March 27, 2009

    “So, Pope Benedict, I urge you to do the ethical thing”

    Why would he choose now, and this issue in particular, to begin behaving ethically? It is more important, from his point of view, to preserve the church, and that if that entail watering down, or ignoring, pesky things like science and reality, so be it. I really doubt he has any real knowledge of the problem, or any real concern for the victims: this is all about maintaining the control of his empire.

  2. #2 Spaulding
    March 27, 2009

    Oh snap!
    You’ve got vicious tact, Janet!

  3. #3 Joe Donohue
    March 27, 2009

    Theology, like any other form of law, is interested in the facts only if the facts are useful to achieving one’s goals. If the facts contradict those goals, so much the worse for the facts. The Pope’s goal is to save souls. If that means that people suffer in this life for the afterlife, so be it. The truth as revealed by religion trumps truth as revealed by science. Mythos beats logos.

    The evil that the Pope wants to fight is not the spread of HIV but the spread of extramarital sex. Fighting the latter should prevent the former, but that is not his main goal. Condoms help prevent the spread of HIV but they may also help the spread of extramarital sex; therefore, condoms increase the amount of evil in the world.

    Biology and geology offer an alternative explanation about who we are and where we come from — and, more importantly, the evidence is overwhelming and easy to understand. Nothing could be more threatening to religion. That they help feed people through improved agriculture and help heal people through modern medicine only makes science more pernicious.

    Stalin, too, had an ideology to up hold Stalin subscribed to the theory that science is based on class and allowed millions to starve as a result. Of course, this waste of human lives did not interest him, but obtaining the atomic bomb did. According to Stalin and the Soviet Science Wars by Ethan Pollock,

    Quantum mechanics and relativity in physics potentially challenged Marxist-Leninist materialist epistemology even as they seemed crucial for the development of atomic weapons….

    Beria, the brutal police chief whom Stalin had put in charge of the Soviet atomic weapons project, recognized the expedience of protecting the scientists under his charge from attacks by ideological zealots. Physicists adeptly translated the importance of atomic weapons research into unprecedented control over their own profession.

    Stalin had a choice between ideological purity and atomic weapons — and he chose atomic weapons.

  4. #4 Rob Jase
    March 27, 2009

    The only ethics the pope is interested in are the ones that profit his organization. Dead people can’t have any sort of illicit sex.

    At least not consentually.

  5. #5 drdrA
    March 27, 2009

    I quite agree. Nice post. I posted my thoughts here:

  6. #6 Gray Gaffer
    March 27, 2009

    er, Joe, the Pope is the head of a religion that imposes penance on its adherents should they confess to petty lying. Their lies typically affect only a few people. His lies affect an entire population.

    The correct thing for him to do is the second part of the last para: “set the record straight on what the scientific evidence says about condoms, and make your spiritual case against condoms on strictly spiritual grounds.”

    We have no existence proof that “ends justify the means” or that misinforming the population betters their lot. We have uncountable existence proofs that these tactics lead to disaster, in the long run if not the short.

  7. #7 BikeMonkey
    March 28, 2009

    Slow comment day for such provocation….wonder if people are askeered of getting on the wrong side of God, the Pope and/or Dr. Isis…in no particular order.

  8. #8 Epinephrine
    March 28, 2009

    BikeMonkey – I think most people expressed their ire a few days ago. I know I raged about this, but the reality of the situation is that the Pope will never apologize, and it’s simply one more thing to drive people away from the church. Excommunicate a few more 9 year old victims of child sexual abuse and watch the hordes leaving Catholicism behind.

    The more the Pope says things that makes people question their religion, the better.

  9. #9 Mike
    March 29, 2009

    Today in the Washington Post, Edward Green says that the Pope made evidence based statements about HIV and condoms in Africa. And that everyone who criticized the Pope was waging war on science in order to get in political/religious pot shots.

    What is your take on this article?

    “In 2003, Norman Hearst and Sanny Chen of the University of California conducted a condom effectiveness study for the United Nations’ AIDS program and found no evidence of condoms working as a primary in HIV-prevention measure in Africa. UNAIDS quietly disowned the study. (The authors eventually managed to publish their findings in the quarterly Studies in Family Planning.) Since then, major articles in other peer-reviewed journals such as the Lancet, Science and BMJ have confirmed that condoms have not worked as a primary intervention in the population-wide epidemics of Africa. In a 2008 article in Science called “Reassessing HIV Prevention” 10 AIDS experts concluded that “consistent condom use has not reached a sufficiently high level, even after many years of widespread and often aggressive promotion, to produce a measurable slowing of new infections in the generalized epidemics of Sub-Saharan Africa.” “

  10. #10 freelunch
    March 30, 2009

    Green appears to be confused about what the Pope said. If the Pope had said that condom use is not enough, Green’s article might have had something to do with what the Pope said, but the Pope appears to want people to get HIV/AIDS.

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