As a Catholic who lapsed in high school, only Lent has the power to draw me back in. I was raised to eat fish on Fridays and to give up an earthly pleasure in emulation of the ultimate sacrifice (my annual ritual was to forego candy) for the forty days leading up to Easter Sunday. Each spring when the days get longer and tulips sprout through the thawing ground, I crave that structure again, the reliable twin anchors of tradition and faith. I want to suspend my disbelief and reclaim -- if not the teachings -- then the poetry of the religion I was raised on. I would love to hear the reading of The Passion again on Palm Sunday, and to re-experience the magic in its narrative. But then the Pope has to go and say something infuriating as he did on the way to Cameroon on Tuesday. He stated that condoms were not the safeguard against AIDS, the epidemic roiling the African continent. Instead he advocated for a "spiritual and human awakening" with plans to talk to young Africans about abstinence and monogamy as the only acceptable paths to AIDS prevention. He even said presumably with a straight face that condom distribution could "aggravate the problem" of AIDS.
What century are we in?
I respond to Pope Benedict's comments not as an AIDS researcher or activist, who must be plenty mad, but as a once and former Catholic, one who is embarrassed yet again by the only church I have ever known. These kinds of statements are the reason why the church continues to drive lots of reasonable and rational people away. It is hard to adhere to a faith whose head can make such a declaration, particularly on a continent which has already suffered more than 25 million AIDS deaths - 83 per cent of the world's total.
Maybe by now the church has given up on the likes of me, people weary of its treatment of women, the dark ghosts of Nazi collusion, the years of sex scandals and rampant abuse of priestly power. Not to mention its stance on reproductive rights and homosexuality. And still...even with all that, the church's hold can be fierce, even to the disillusioned or the non-believing faithful like me, especially when one craves a spiritual home in a world gone mad. Try walking into a cathedral, lighting a candle and looking way up to the vaulted ceiling if you want to dispel your doubts and explore for a moment the mystery of faith. But just in case the Vatican wanted to make Catholicism more appealing, just in case they were hoping to bring some wandering lambs back into the fold, the Pope's comments extinguished those hopes, yet again, during the time of year when such a thing would be most possible. His declarations reaffirmed that the church he leads is, on some issues, truly out of touch.
Like his predecessor John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI has no intention of altering the teachings of the church for current realities -- like the killer AIDS epidemic that by the way, the US considers a national security threat. His task is to uphold immutable Catholic doctrine. But it seems to me that he could do that, and be the moral spiritual guide so many people hunger for, without actually being irresponsible. It seems to me that one can still be a holy man and promote the culture of life that is the essence of Catholicism by insisting that condom use helps prevent the horrors of death by AIDS. Enough punishment and guilt, already; people are dying. African governments and health care professionals are working day and night to get the message out on the ABC's of AIDS prevention. It starts with abstinence, continues with be faithful, and ends with proper use of condoms (and with these efforts, Uganda is a burgeoning success story). This is the advice the world's citizens still need to heed, and hopefully not that of the Pope, who really should not be lecturing about sex.
The church has fought against good science and good sense for too long, losing people along the way with a moral code that has not changed for centuries. There is much that is permanent and pure in these traditions, but there is so much more that seems hopelessly and tragically unenlightened. I was hoping for some changes under Pope Benedict XVI. The church is overdue for a true twenty-first century re-prioritization, but it looks like I'll be waiting longer than my lifetime will allow. How nice it would have been for those of us who can't help the fact that we were born Catholic, to see the church listen and respond to the world we inhabit. Maybe the dons in Rome don't care that I've long since lapsed, but this time of year, I do.