Pope Benedict visited Cameroon in March 2009 and declared: "condom use aggravates the AIDS problem".
He was simply repeating a line taken by John Paul II in 1990, since which time AIDS has infected millions, and some countries have an infection rate above 20%. How can it be that a Catholic leader can advocate a moral position which appears to contribute directly to the suffering of millions?
This Roman Catholic position derives from Aquinas' Natural Law ethic. Natural Law begins with the fundamental observation that human beings have a purpose, to flourish, and in order to fulfil this God has given us all an innate tendency to "do good and avoid evil", the so-called synderesis rule.
From this tendency we can observe certain behaviours which can be termed "good": to preserve life, to procreate, to gain education, to live in society and worship God. These five"primary precepts" can be applied a number of ways, for example, the primary good of procreation means anything which interferes with the natural process of reproduction is wrong. Hence the Catholic method, which is to abstain from sexual relations outside marriage, and never to use any form of birth control within marriage.
Whilst this may be consistent, it is strange that anyone should argue logically that condom distribution aggravates HIV infection. This flies in the face of science: a rubber barrier is highly effective in reducing the risk, as the virus cannot move across a sheath. There is at least a missing link here: if free condoms encourages promiscuity and there is generally a culture of irresponsibility, with condoms used at best haphazardly, then the empirical statement made by the Pope might be true.
However, the evidence world wide, in the UK for example, is that effective education combined with a less promiscuous culture means AIDS does not, despite 1980s predictions, reach epidemic proportions. Such a pattern of success has been repeated recently in Thailand and Kenya.
Why then in this case does the metaphysics of Natural Law trump the physics of how AIDS transmits? Let me suggest it's because it is an African problem. Europeans have difficulty identifying with Africa, it's culture, politics and it's problems. If Europe had the rate of infection of Cameroon or Angola, then Catholic Policy would have to have changed.
Public pronouncements by world religious leaders can have profound consequences, and could even be termed deeply immoral. But they raise fascinating questions about the relationship between ethics and the empirical world, between fact and value.