Pope Benedict XVI recently weighed in on the AIDS epidemic in Africa, and made an astonishing claim, as the AP reported:

Pope Benedict XVI said condoms are not the answer to the AIDS epidemic in Africa and can make the problem worse, setting off criticism Tuesday as he began a weeklong trip to the continent where some 22 million people are living with HIV. …

In his four years as pope, Benedict had never directly addressed condom use, although his position is not new. His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, often said that sexual abstinence — not condoms — was the best way to prevent the spread of the disease.

Benedict also said the Roman Catholic Church was at the forefront of the battle against AIDS.

“You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms,” the pope told reporters aboard the Alitalia plane heading to Yaounde. “On the contrary, it increases the problem.”

The pope said a responsible and moral attitude toward sex would help fight the disease, as he answered questions submitted in advance by reporters traveling on the plane. His response was presumably also prepared in advance.

In the most technical sense only, the Pope has a point. Having less sex means less AIDS transmission. However, his position — that the only way to solve the AIDS epidemic in Africa, is for the entire continent to collectively stop having sex — is unrealistic to the point of being asinine.

It’s just not going to happen!

Not only that, the Pope is not an epidemiologist and has no expertise to rely on, in making this claim. He is looking at it in a purely idealistic or philosophical fashion. Few problems have ever been solved by idealistic means, however.

The Pope has, naturally, taken some heat over his claim, but continues to defend his indefensible claim, as Reuters reports:

The Vatican on Wednesday defended Pope Benedict’s opposition to the use of condoms to stop the spread of AIDS as activists, doctors and politicians criticised it as unrealistic, unscientific and dangerous. …

Asked about the criticism, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the pope was “maintaining the position of his predecessors”.

The Vatican also says condoms can also lead to risky behaviour but many contest that view.

Kevin De Cock, director of the World Health Organisation’s HIV/AIDS department, said there is no scientific evidence showing that condom use spurs people to take more sexual risks.

The Vatican’s claim that widely-available condoms increase irresponsible behavior, is akin to slippery-slope thinking, and for that reason, is fallacious. It might intuitively appear to be the case, but intuitive suppositions are not facts. The Reuters article quotes someone who actually is an expert in the field, who summarizes how stupid the Vatican is being on this matter:

“The pope saying they are not good is like someone saying travelling by air is not 100 percent safe, so we should not fly,” said Pat Matemilola, national co-ordinator for the Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria (NEPWHAN), a medical doctor who has been living with HIV/AIDS for more than a decade.

The moral of this story: Being a religious or spiritual figure — even one as revered as the Pope — does not make one an expert in fields one has never studied. Credentials matter; idealism, or worse, religionism, doesn’t.

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