I try to avoid writing about sociopolitical topics because I don't want to offend people with different leanings or beliefs. But a recent statement by Pope Benedict XVI -- a man who leads more than 1 billion followers worldwide -- cannot go unchallenged.
On a trip to Africa in March, the pope said that condoms are not the answer to stopping the spread of HIV. In fact, he said condom use actually worsens the spread of the virus.
For many HIVers, living with the virus has certainly become more manageable given our access to medical care and lifesaving prescription medications. We are fortunate. But not everyone is.
Africa continues to be the region most severely affected by HIV and AIDS. An estimated 6% of the adult population in sub-Saharan Africa lives with the virus, with some countries on the continent posting adult HIV prevalence levels as high as 25%. In 2006 alone, there were 2 million AIDS-related deaths in Africa.
To put that figure into perspective, the cumulative number of AIDS deaths in the United States is less than 600,000. In Africa, one year of AIDS deaths more than triples the total number of American lives lost to the disease over the past 30 years. The loss of life is staggering and tragic beyond words.
And yet, despite the death and despair pervasive in Africa, the pope actually thought it was responsible to tell an outright lie that condoms -- scientifically proven to prevent HIV transmissions and a prevention tool endorsed by every major AIDS and health agency around the globe -- don't work.
I cannot recall a more reckless statement in the history of the pandemic, and it's particularly dangerous given that Africa is seeing the largest growth in Catholic Church affiliation of any region in the world. In an environment where the church has a growing audience and an increasing potential for positive impact, it responds in a most destructive fashion.
When the leader of one of the world's largest faith groups denounced condoms, it struck a very sensitive nerve in me.
I'll readily admit that my reaction likely reflects underlying unresolved issues that I have with the Catholic Church. I've written in the past that the church was perhaps the biggest single contributor to the shame I felt about being gay while growing up. But as an adult who is now quite comfortable with his sexuality, I had to wonder why I felt such deep anger at the pope's anti-condoms comments.
I've come to realize that perhaps I'm only now experiencing the anger toward the church that I should have experienced in my youth. Or maybe I'm just now realizing that I've held deep, unresolved anger toward the church for a long, long time.
The thing about unresolved anger is that while it feels justified and 'good' in the moment, it ultimately holds one back. In this case, the pope's comments revealed to me that I am still strongly attached to my anger toward the church. And that made me wonder how this attachment negatively impacts my life, how much energy I waste in hanging onto that anger, and whether being unable to let go of my anger may actually be reinforcing the original shame the church heaped upon me. Most important, it made me begin to think about how I could disentangle myself from this toxic dynamic.
What I've come to realize is that if the pope and the church can be wrong now about condoms -- and they most certainly are wrong -- they also can be wrong about a lot of other things, including homosexuality. When the pope says condoms don't work, I need to understand and accept that his point of view is drawn from an obvious lack of compassion and logic, just as the church's condemnation of me and other gay people is rooted in the same shortcomings and fallacies.
In recognizing how out of touch with reality the church is now, it's easier to see that its messages that caused me so much pain and shame were out of touch with reality as well. And knowing that, it's easier to finally start to let go of the anger I've held all these years.
Fransen is a licensed clinical social worker who is in private therapy practice in Chicago. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.