Skip to main content

Pope Benedict, tear down this wall

Malcolm Potts, professor of population and family planning | December 14, 2010

All the world knew when the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, that a half century of Soviet tyranny was over.  Last month Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged that the use of a condom might save a man from dying of AIDS.  The Pope had the wisdom not to write an encyclical but to make a few remarks to Peter Seewald, a German journalist he trusted.  Already the Vatican is backtracking on the meaning of this statement, but there can be no doubt that this change in policy signals the fall of a theological wall around human sexuality, which has imprisoned Catholics for one and half millennia. Now the Pope’s Berlin Wall has been breached , and there is no return.

In the early 1980s, as president of a large US humanitarian agency, I initiated the first large scale AIDS prevention efforts in Africa, including the distribution of condoms. The Catholic leadership at all levels consistently opposed this work and even burned condoms in public. Until the Pope spoke, the Catholic hierarchy was trying to adverts such as “Banning condoms kills” by Washington-based Catholics for Choice. An estimated 25 million people have now died of AIDS.  An additional 33 million now carry the AIDS virus, and many of these will die before they can be treated.   Had the Vatican thrown its weight behind condom use, then I guess – and I admit it is only a guess – that perhaps 100,000 people might still be alive. That is as many as were killed in Hiroshima when the first atomic bomb was dropped.

But Pope Benedict’s words go far beyond AIDS. Once a Pope allows condoms to prevent AIDS, then why not the Pill to prevent unintended pregnancy? Last month I was in the Philippines where 11 woman a day die from pregnancy, childbirth or unsafe abortion. As an obstetrician I believe that half those deaths would be avoided if the bishops were not systemically denying poor women access to modern contraception.

As a young theologian, Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, was close to the debate surrounding contraception.  John Rock, a prominent Catholic gynecologist in Massachusetts, was central to the development of the first oral contraceptives.  In 1963 he wrote The Time has Come , arguing that the Pill was natural because the artificial hormones that were used in the Pill, like pregnancy and breastfeeding, naturally suppressed ovulation. One year later, Pope Paul VI established a Commission to advise on the theological acceptability of the Pill.  The bishops, who among other things heard the lay members describe the misery of using the rhythm method, voted 9 to 3 that “contraception within the framework of “responsible parenthood’” could be permitted.  After a year’s thought Pope Paul overrode his own Commission, writing the encyclical Humanae vitae, which excluded “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation.”  As Father John Ford, a conservative member of the Commission put it, if the Church had sent so many souls to Hell for the sin of artificial contraception, then it must keep maintaining that is where they are.

After Humanae vitae John Rock, along with millions of other Catholics stopped going to mass. Bishops throughout Europe told Catholics to follow their conscience. Throughout Europe and North and South America, Catholics now use contraception at the same rate as Protestants and atheists.  Even the Maltese, perhaps the most conservative Catholic country in Europe, now average 1.4 children.  Obviously they are using contraception.

The man who first erected a Berlin Wall around human sexuality was the 4th century writer St Augustine.  He taught that original sin had been transmitted in the semen since Adam, like some latter day AIDS virus. Augustine, having had two mistresses and one child, admitted he had never met a man who had intercourse “solely in the hope of conception,” yet he stubbornly taught that the pleasure of sex was intrinsically and inescapably sinful unless it was open to possibility of conception.  (At least Augustine was consistent, and unlike later lesser theologians he condemned what is now called natural family planning, along with all other forms of contraception.)

When Humanae vitae was published, I was a young doctor prescribing the Pill in England. I remember the British Medical Research Council setting up a study of 23,000 women using oral contraceptives and 23,000 non-users. Earlier this year a remarkable 39-year follow-up of these women, based on 1.2 million women years of exposure, was published in the British Medical Journal. The results are stunning: women using oral contraceptive “had a significantly lower rate of death from any cause.”  They had fewer melanomas, ovarian, uterine and bowel cancers, and, over a life time, less heart disease.  Perhaps if Pope Paul VI had known these findings he would not have rejected the Pill as unnatural.

In the long history of the Church it is not surprising that errors arose in interpreting the world around us. In 1633 the Vatican condemned Galileo’s insight that the earth went round the sun. Understanding human reproduction has taken longer than calculating the orbits of the planets. When St Augustine wrote in the 4th century, not even the ovaries were understood, let alone the role of hormones circulating in the blood.  Whether the sun goes round the earth or the earth goes round the sun is intellectually interesting, but it does not harm anyone in any way.  When Pope Paul VI condemned the Pill and other artificial contraceptives in 1968, he caused suffering to millions of loving couples.  Tragically, admitting that Augustine and Humane vitae were wrong is likely to prove more difficult than apologizing for putting Galileo’s book on the Index over 350 years earlier – which Pope John Paul did in 1992, writing about “The error of the theologians of the time.”

At long last, Pope Benedict has had the courage and integrity to open one check point in the Berlin Wall of sexual theology.  Will he now welcome the millions who will try to demolish the rest of the wall? Or will he try to close the gate?  If he does he will be too late.