Benedict XVI is in the middle of a week-long trip to Africa, his first visit to the continent as pope.

There are many issues in African Christianity that are fascinating and worthwhile, from the church’s social advocacy on corruption and governance, to the continent’s evangelical religious upheaval. But you probably will not be hearing about them. No — the media coverage of Benedict’s Africa visit will revolve mostly around one thing: condoms.

The Vatican’s position on artificial contraception, elaborated in Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, is one of the Catholic Church’s most enduringly unpopular dogmas. From a public-relations point of view, the church’s take on condoms is the Catholic equivalent of Bible-thumpers’ creationist weirdness. Both viewpoints are, to the average semi-rational Westerner, some combination of unjustifiably absolutist and embarrassingly backward. As a French NGO worker in Cameroon, where Benedict arrived Tuesday, quipped, “Is the pope living in the 21st century?”

The pope, as everyone knows, has a knack for mis-explaining his views — or sometimes over-explaining them, his nuances soaring well over the heads of illiterate Muslim radicals and the press corps alike. The condom issue is the perfect opportunity to be misunderstood, and Benedict performed in line with expectations. Even before touching down in Africa, the pontiff reaffirmed the Vatican’s position from his Alitalia charter by saying that the continent’s AIDS epidemic “cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems.”

This may sound rather baffling to a person who “knows” (we will get to hitches in that “knowledge” in a moment) that condoms do prevent, as a medical certainty, the transmission of HIV if used properly.

Knowing this — and perhaps only this — the pope’s critics have not labored themselves with the details. The most polemic accuse the pontiff of nothing less than abetting murder. Others, like CNN’s Roland Martin, sneer at the Vatican’s “ignorance of reality,” a label that fits neatly with the usual caricature of the “conservative” Benedict or his “ultraconservative” cohort as being dramatically out of touch with everyday human reality.

The pope, of course, is not actually “ignorant.” The Vatican knows well what it is doing, and the church is not deaf to the suffering of those Africans living with AIDS. Indeed, Catholic Relief Services and Caritas Internationalis (the U.S. and worldwide Catholic relief agencies respectively) are leaders in distributing antiretroviral drugs, and in so doing have saved thousands of lives.

But the Vatican’s message on preventing HIV in the first place is often muddled. So here, for the record, is a summation of the Catholic argument. It begins with the premise that while the AIDS epidemic is the result of a virus, it is as much a social as a viral illness. It is not something one catches merely by inhalation or shaking hands or other passive contact. The transmission of HIV in the vast majority of cases can be traced to an elective and deliberate act of sexual intercourse.

Thus, the Catholic logic goes, the disease should be treated essentially as a social ailment. The goal should be to promote widespread delays in becoming sexually active among young people and, when they grow up, encourage them to form committed relationships. Merely mediating a risky behavior with mechanical prophylaxis is wrong because it gives tacit permission to the sex act, and undercuts the moral authority of these larger social goals. In any case, if condoms are to be used regardless, the church should not sully its own approach.

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