As Pope Benedict XVI led a mass of 50,000 people at Nationals stadium in Washington, D.C., last Thursday, Sen. Barbara Boxer became the only national politician to use the occasion of Benedict's visit to protest the Vatican's reactionary politics on reproductive health.
For three days, Boxer held up the vote on a welcome resolution in honor of the Pope's visit. The text had been drafted by Sen. Sam Brownback, a fundamentalist Catholic whose career has been built around support for a Constitutional amendment banning abortion and opposition to even rape victims' right to choose. Brownback's original resolution praised Benedict for "witnessing to the value of each and every human life," a statement Boxer and a bipartisan group of Senators recognized as an unnecessary dog whistle to the anti-choice right. Thanks to Boxer's leadership, the language was struck from the resolution, as was another sentence that claimed religion — not the U.S. Constitution — was the "ultimate source" of Americans' "rights and liberties."
Boxer's resistance was but a drop in a sea of pontiff triumphalism. When the typical world leader visits our nation's capital, he or she is forced to answer for policies Americans find troublesome. When Chinese President Hu Jintao met with President George W. Bush in fall 2005 and spring 2006, Bush promised the press he would bring up China's well-documented human rights abuses. American presidents encourage Israeli prime ministers to halt the construction of new Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories, and hold Palestinian leaders accountable for suicide bombings. And no Mexican leader visiting the United States can avoid the topic of stemming the northward tide of illegal immigration.
Those "conversations" often amount to little more than window dressing at a White House state dinner. But during Benedict's visit, there wasn't even a signal or hint of constructive criticism from leading American politicians. Bush, as well as presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama, made uniformly laudatory statements in the Pope's honor.
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Of course, it is both appropriate and politically expedient to show respect and admiration for a man who heads a church with which almost a quarter of Americans are affiliated. But Benedict's role surpasses that of an ordinary religious leader; about one-sixth of the world's population is Catholic, and policies decided upon by the Vatican can be a matter of life and death, especially in the developing world. That's why, particularly at a time when Congress is reconsidering the role of contraception in PEPFAR, the United States' HIV/AIDS relief program for sub-Saharan Africa, American leaders should have held Benedict accountable for the Church's continued ban on condom usage.
In practice, the Vatican's rejection of both contraception and divorce can act as a death sentence for young women in the developing world. Writing in Commonweal magazine, an opinion journal edited by lay American Catholics, Dr. Marcella Alsan described her experience tending to AIDS patients in Swaziland:
The typical patient is a young woman between 18 and 30 years of age. She is wheeled into the examining room in a hospital chair or dragged in, supported by her sister, aunt, or brother. She is frequently delirious; her face is gaunt; her limbs look like desiccated twigs. Surprisingly, the young woman is already a mother many times over, yet she will not live to see her children grow up. More shocking still, she is married; her husband infected her with the deadly virus.
This is the reality: a married woman living in Southern Africa is at higher risk of becoming infected with HIV than an unmarried woman. Extolling abstinence and fidelity, as the Catholic Church does, will not protect her; in all likelihood she is already monogamous. It is her husband who is likely to have HIV. Yet refusing a husband's sexual overtures risks ostracism, violence, and destitution for herself and her children.
In poverty-stricken societies where prostitution is commonplace, women have few recourses to protect themselves sexually. By clinging to a contraception ban at odds with the realities of modern life, the Catholic Church bolsters misogynistic cultural norms that say women don't have the right to refuse sex or insist upon having it safely.
Recognizing those facts, priests, bishops, and cardinals in Brazil, South Africa, Belgium, and around the world have implored the Vatican to view condom usage not as unnatural, but as a way to protect the sanctity of human life by preventing the spread of disease. And in the United States, lay Catholics are active in the reproductive health movement through organizations such as Catholics for a Free Choice and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
But Benedict has tuned out those voices. In June 2005, he said that contraception leads to a "breakdown in sexual morality," ignoring the fact that many of the 6,000 sub-Saharan Africans infected with HIV daily are completely monogamous women. And even if an individual has had more than one partner, does the Church really believe he or she deserves to be tormented by AIDS?
Catholic organizations provide about 25 percent of the HIV/AIDS relief available worldwide. For that, the Church should be commended. But until Pope Benedict XVI and the entire Catholic hierarchy embrace the role of condoms in fighting AIDS, Catholic compassion will be limited by ideology. Faith leaders working on the ground have accepted that contraception saves lives. Isn't it time for a brave American politician to ask the Pope why he won't do the same? To do so would not be disrespectful to either Benedict or American Catholics. Rather, it would recognize the Vatican's unique power to influence the lives of its followers around the world.