Mar 18 2009

Don’t Take Medical Advice From The Pope

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Comments: 25

While visiting in Africa Pope Benedict made his first public comment on condom use.

“(HIV/AIDS) is a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, and that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems.”

The Catholic health minister warns that HIV can pass through condoms and therefore they basically don’t work.

It’s not difficult to point out the obvious here. The evidence shows that, when used properly, condoms decrease the risk of HIV transmission by 90%. The Pope and the Catholic church has an obvious conflict here as they have had a longstanding policy against condom use on moral grounds.

I do want to point out that I have no problem with a religious organization preaching a moral code. I may have a problem with specific beliefs or tenets of certain religions, if I think they are malignant or immoral from a more objective basis, but I believe in freedom of religion and they certainly have the right to preach what they want.

However, I have a serious problem with anyone who makes specific scientific claims just to support a moral position.  Having a religious stance against condom use does not mean you get to make up your own scientific facts about them. Further, when dealing with a public health crisis, like HIV in Africa, spreading misinformation can be considered malfeasance.

Rather, the Pope and the church should just say what they believe – go ahead and promote abstinence and fidelity as one means of preventing the spread of HIV. But do not make up scientific facts to support a moral position.

This behavior stems from the general human desire for clean simplicity combined with the tendency to defend held positions at all costs. Reality is often not accommodating – it’s ambiguous and involves trade-offs.

Twisting science to support a religious belief is also just a failed strategy. The false scientific arguments just end up diluting the moral argument and squandering the credibility of those who make them. It is better to admit that condoms may be effective, but abstinence is more moral. Or that embryonic stem cells may create effective cures, but the moral trade-offs are not worth it. Don’t pretend stem cells don’t hold promise.

By linking himself to a demonstrably false factual claim, the Pope has only succeeded in removing himself from any serious public discussion on the issue. And, to the extent that any of his followers actually believe his false statements, he has potentially contributed to the spread of HIV.

Don’t fight the facts – it’s a losing strategy.

25 responses so far

25 Responses to “Don’t Take Medical Advice From The Pope”

  1. DevilsAdvocateon 18 Mar 2009 at 8:50 am

    I’d suggest that once one has ignored or misstated readily available pertinent scientific facts in order to support a moral position, that position is no longer moral.

  2. catgirlon 18 Mar 2009 at 9:45 am

    I have several friends who went to Catholic schools, and had surprisingly good sex education. They were told that condoms are extremely effective, but it’s a sin to use them. It seems that the Pope is out of touch with at least some Catholic people.

  3. mindmeon 18 Mar 2009 at 10:38 am

    I find it amazingly disturbing the pope makes up a claim about one of the few scientifically established methods for drastically reducing the risk of HIV infection and replaces it with a solution based on hand waving. You know. You know, just start respecting people and stop wanting to corn hole them. How’s that been working out for you, priesthood?

  4. HHCon 18 Mar 2009 at 11:50 am

    A political cartoon of the Pope and an Aids patient should be inserted here. First stage, time frame” Pope” during WWII with original German surname in his Nazi uniform, second stage, Pope Benedict in his Catholic uniform. Next display, smiling HIV positive patient, later timeframe, HIV positive patient diagnosed with AIDS wearing a condom. :-))

  5. eiskrystalon 18 Mar 2009 at 12:01 pm

    I can only assume that the pope is trying for some kind of idiot ultimate fullhouse given his record blunders so far.

    Really, the fact that i almost share a continent with him deeply embarrasses me.

    I have to go wash…immediately.

  6. Karl Withakayon 18 Mar 2009 at 2:27 pm


    It’s my understanding that Pope doesn’t exactly have as much of a grip on the Catholic churches here in the US as it wants to have.

    Many Catholic churches here in the US are a little more liberal than the Vatican in Rome would like.

  7. Karl Withakayon 18 Mar 2009 at 2:30 pm

    The Vatican does this same type of thing whenever there is a world population summit. They insist there are no over population problems in the world, and there is no need for population control.

    I don’t know why the Vatican is ever invited to those summits. As a sovereign sate, Vatican City doesn’t really have a chip in the game. I mean, they’re not in any danger of a population explosion, are they?

  8. weingon 18 Mar 2009 at 3:06 pm

    The church is just trying to follow the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ command. To be consistent they should be pushing for space exploration and terraforming other planets and asteroids on the way to other solar systems.

  9. Watcheron 18 Mar 2009 at 5:19 pm

    To be consistent they should be pushing for space exploration and terraforming other planets and asteroids on the way to other solar systems.

    I’d jump all over that 🙂 I’m just hoping for a manned mission to mars before I die.

  10. halincohon 18 Mar 2009 at 7:50 pm

    Steve, you’re so off base here.

    The other day I had a complicated case: rising creatinine, low albumen in serum, protein in the urine, fever in a patient with a recent respiratory infection. I thought that this might be glomerulonephritis or a reactive nephritis, but the urine was normal.

    So I called the Pope.

    He said ” perhaps you should repeat the urine test.” Son of a gun, I did and there were the red cell casts making a strong case for the diagnosis. Unfortunately, there was a mix up with the previous urine. The patient was fully worked up, treated and is doing fine.

    So I called the Pope back and said, ” thanks Pope … I feel like an idiot for not thinking of doing that on my own.”

    Pope said, “it’s ok … you’re forgiven and then he mumbled something.”

    Steve, I was raised in a Jewish household, so I’m confused; according to the Pope if I somehow throw a Hail Mary pass everything will REALLY be fine. My question to you is this: Why the Hail Mary? Is the Pope a Boston College fan?

  11. taustinon 18 Mar 2009 at 8:41 pm

    Just to play Devil’s Advocate: It should be obvious that the quote above isn’t everything he said. So far, I can’t find any more complete quote. I suspect this is being presented very, very out of context by the US press. Some version of the story include a little bit more:

    “Speaking as he flew from Rome to Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, the Pope insisted that the way to confront the condition was through sexual monogamy.

    Aids, he said, “is a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, and that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems”. ”

    This does not say that condoms spread HIV, but that distributing condoms can aggravate the real problems, which are godlessness. Religious leaders see AIDS as a symptom, not as the central problem. I expect that if you had a complete quote of this comments, or a chance to ask him to clarify, the logic would be that distributing condoms leads people to have more non-monogamous sex, rather than that they are ineffective at stopping HIV. (Yes, one of the Vatican’s science advisors has said just that, and yes, he’s a drooling moron and, morally, a murderer. He does not speak for “the Church,” only the Pope does that. The Pope’s sin is in not refuting this claims. I won’t dispute that.)

    If there is some selective, context-changing quoting going on here, the newsies doing so are doing as much to make the situation worse as the Pope is, fanning the flames to sell advertising.

    Anybody got a complete transcript of his comments?

  12. straightgodlesson 18 Mar 2009 at 9:04 pm

    Dr. Novella please take a listen to the new Skeptiko episode. It is an interview with the creator of the paranormal website The Daily Grail. In it he claims it is obvious that you “have not read the literature” (on ufo and life after death claims and so on) and so on. Be sure to comment on his claims about “The New Skeptics.” I would definitely consider writing a blog in response to his claims about skeptics.

    Thank you.

  13. HHCon 18 Mar 2009 at 10:01 pm

    I worked with a dying, AIDS patient. His problem was not godlessness, but he had a drug addiction which led to an extremely destructive lifestyle. He was religious, a Catholic who remembered his church in the end. Religion seems to be important in the beginning and at the end of life. What happens in between is a mystery.

  14. mikethebikeyon 19 Mar 2009 at 5:33 am

    I guess the pope is just looking for more members for the going to heaven brigade.
    It is especially tragic to those of us that have no belief in an afterlife or that a god talks to the pope (I wonder if he/she speaks german?)
    You would think this kind of behavior would be enough to turn people into atheists at an unprecedented rate , apparently not .
    Comments like the popes inevitably end in death and misery for some of those willing to follow his teachings and rank at the bottom of the morality heap .
    If you let religion trump the scientific method your outcomes will be less than favorable and in this case could end in a premature painful and unnecessary death .

  15. sonicon 19 Mar 2009 at 6:21 am

    It looks like the Pope has been misquoted.

    This article provides a link to his full statement as well as a correction of the quote above.

    I lived in San Francisco during the 80’s and 90’s. Here is what I learned-

    You can get AIDS even though you use a condom. (Many people have died horrible deaths because they thought they were ‘protected’)
    The only way to assure that you do not get AIDS from sexual contact is to not have sex.
    If you do have sex, a monogamous relationship is your best bet.
    Those statements are all scientifically validated and anyone who tells you otherwise is putting you at risk of getting a horrible, incurable disease.
    (Sex is not the only means of getting AIDS- it can be carried through blood as well)

  16. CKavaon 19 Mar 2009 at 7:51 am


    Although you can get aids even when wearing a condom it dramatically decreases the risk (by 90%!) therefore it will be an essential part of any successful strategy to combat the spread of the disease in countries where it has reached epidemic levels.

    As for the Catholic Church’s opposition to the use of condoms it is not based on ‘the facts’ it is based on the Catholic religious dogma relating to sexuality.

    In many countries in Africa aids is so widely spread that it’s simply ridiculous to suggest that condoms are not an important part of the solution. A 90% reduction in risk of transmission makes a hell of a difference.

    As for the misquote the pope was claimed to have said “al contrario, il rischio è di aumentare il problema” which seems to me to mean ‘to the contrary, the risk is that this will augment the problem”. That’s still rubbish and it doesn’t actually seem to be very different to me than ‘it even aggravates the problem’.

    Oh and now having done a bit more googling it turns out that the pope was not misquoted and some Vatican press officer altered what the pope said to try and soften the message. Unfortunately, another reporter had a recording of what the pope really did say and it turns out it was what was originally reported.

    Here’s a link from the very blog you linked to:

    And the article discussing this from the telegraph:

    So in summary it’s not a good idea to just immediately buy into Vatican press releases nor can I personally see how the Vaticans alterations significantly change the fundamental fact that the pope’s statement was wrong.

  17. Steven Novellaon 19 Mar 2009 at 8:23 am

    I assumed that the Pope’s position was that abstinence and monogamy are the most effective steps at preventing HIV spread, and I have no problem with him advocating that strategy and even saying that it is the most effective.

    My criticism was solely that he then misrepresented the scientific facts to bolster his moral position. And yes, the Vatican spin machine took over from there, but still muddled the science.

  18. daedalus2uon 19 Mar 2009 at 10:24 am

    If the Pope and the Catholic Church can’t be trusted to be honest about something that is completely verifiable by other means, what basis is there for trusting them on something that is not otherwise verifiable?

    In this instance we know they are lying and they know they are lying (about what the Pope said). Why they think they can get their lies accepted as facts shows a level of hubris and disingenuousness that is breath taking.

    Why they would want to shows what is fundamentally important to the Catholic Church (and hence the fundamental basis of their social/intellectual structure), superficial fawning agreement with “authority” rather than rational reasoned mutual understanding. The ultimate in appeal to authority. What ever the “authority” says is correct, even if it changes from year to year, day to day, or even minute to minute. “Truth” (as they understand it) is mediated through a social power hierarchy as dictated by authority. It is not independently verifiable.

  19. Calli Arcaleon 19 Mar 2009 at 4:56 pm

    If the Pope and the Catholic Church can’t be trusted to be honest about something that is completely verifiable by other means, what basis is there for trusting them on something that is not otherwise verifiable?

    A most pertinent question! (Says this particular Protestant.)

  20. sonicon 20 Mar 2009 at 2:20 am

    First we should acknowledge that the pope did not say any of the things we are quoting- he did not speak in English. Translating is a tricky business.
    Next we should acknowledge that what the pope said was 100% true. There is a strategy that works when it comes to not getting and transmitting AIDS via sexual contact. Condoms aren’t it. The problem then, is that people are having sex in situations where the spread of AIDS is possible (non-monogomous relationships, for example).
    Telling them that it is OK to have sex as long as you wear a condom is condeming millions to a hideous death.
    Why not state truth?

  21. CKavaon 20 Mar 2009 at 7:02 am


    That’s really clutching at straws. The pope was speaking Italian not ancient Sanskrit. His meaning is clear for anyone with a basic grasp of the language. Let’s look at the quote again:

    “al contrario, il rischio è di aumentare il problema”

    Are you really trying to say that the meaning of that sentence is very difficult to translate into English? If so language must really not be your forte. There can be difficulties with translation but in this particular case I don’t see where any real difficulty lies. This wouldn’t be a way for you to avoid admitting you were wrong for jumping to the conclusion that he had been misquoted because the Vatican said so, would it?

    As for what the pope said being 100% true. No I’m sorry it isn’t true. Widespread condom use has been shown time and time again to reduce the spread of aids. Thus saying that it promoting condom use risks increasing/augmenting the problem is in complete contradiction of the facts.

    In regards your strawman no-one is saying that you should ‘tell them it is OK to have sex as long as you wear a condom” or that increasing the prevalence and availability of condoms is the only thing that needs to be done. What people are saying is that it is an integral part of an overall strategy to combat the spread of aids.

    Oh and as for the suggestion that having monogamous relationships is the way to prevent aids spreading that’s great and all but I wonder:
    – How are you going to force people to have monogamous relationships?
    – What do you think two people in a monogamous relationship should do if one of them has aids?

    Remember aids can be inherited and it is extremely widespread in many African countries add rape into the mix and it’s not simply a matter that it’s only those who sleep around who get infected.

    Condoms aren’t magic but what the pope said is based on a religious ideology not science. You can try and spin it whatever way you like sonic but those facts won’t change.

  22. kvsherryon 20 Mar 2009 at 7:10 am


    If the Pope did not say what he is quoted as saying, please tell us what he said.

    Second, I implore you to show us what study you have read that states condom’s make the AIDS problem worse.

  23. weingon 20 Mar 2009 at 8:58 am

    I caught a blurb of a program on TV last night where one of the pope’s defenders said that AIDS is increasing in the African countries that have widespread condom use as in Botswana and decreasing in Uganda where they apparently have an abstinence program. Of course, he did not provide any references.

  24. daedalus2uon 20 Mar 2009 at 9:25 am

    I think that what the Pope meant was that “the problem” with AIDS is not that people get sick and die, but rather that they don’t live according to the dictates of the Catholic Church as they get sick and die of AIDS.

    He has an implicit secret premise that the only “problem” of importance is non-adherence to Catholic teachings. The only solution to that “problem” is greater adherence which means not using condoms. Lying about the effectiveness of condoms in preventing HIV transmission is a “solution” to the greater problem of non-adherence to Catholic teachings. Non-use of condoms may have the effect of exacerbating the minor problem of people getting HIV and dying of AIDS, but to the Pope, that is a minor problem compared to people not following the teachings of the Catholic Church.

  25. Dave The Drummeron 21 Mar 2009 at 2:55 pm

    @MindMe (3rd post from top) :

    It works fine for them because you can’t get prepubescent boys pregnant.

    It really is about time we got together and asked some serious questions of these religious asshats in front of the world’s media.

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