Who's Worse, the Pope or the Condom Mafia, on AIDS?

A New York Times editorial today condemns Pope Benedict XVI for saying at the beginning of his current trip to Africa that condom distribution makes the African AIDS epidemic worse. His exact words were that AIDS was "a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems." The Pope was completely right on the first two phrases in this sentence. Indeed the Condom Mafia, who are going through orgies of ritual abuse of the Pope today after this statement, have much to answer for themselves for obsessively pushing the Give Everyone a Condom model long after it became clear that it wasn’t working in Africa. The work of Daniel Halperin, Helen Epstein, and many others have made it clear that campaigns to reduce the number of concurrent sexual partners is probably a much more effective strategy than simply flooding Africa with condoms (the latter has been done already in many high AIDS countries like Botswana with seemingly no effect). If the Pope can help on the multiple lovers problem with some old-fashioned preaching about sexual fidelity, more power to the Pope.

Where the Pope got into trouble was with the last phrase, that condoms make AIDS worse. From the standpoint of the individual, this is obvious nonsense, you are much less likely to get AIDS if you use a condom. The reason that mass condom distribution has not worked is that far too many people don’t use the condoms. One among the many possible reasons that people don’t use condoms is that religious leaders like the Pope tell them not to, or they believe unscientific statements like the Pope’s that “condoms aggravate the problem.” So it is tragically circular for the Pope to condemn the condom campaigns for not working, when one reason they don’t work is that the Pope has previously condemned condoms.