Culture & Religion
March Tue 24, 2009
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I don't think I've ever covered a papal trip where the gap between internal and external perceptions has been as vast as over these three days. It's almost as if the pope has made two separate visits to Cameroon: the one reported internationally and the one Africans actually experienced.
In the U.S. and many other parts of the world, coverage has been "all condoms, all the time," triggered by comments from Benedict aboard the papal plane to the effect that condoms aren't the right way to fight AIDS. In Africa, meanwhile, the trip has been a hit, beginning with Benedict's dramatic insistence that Christians must never be silent in the face of "corruption and abuses of power," and extending through a remarkable meeting with African Muslims in which the pope said more clearly and succinctly what he wanted to say three years ago in his infamous Regensburg address, and without the gratuitous quotation from a Byzantine emperor.
Vast and pumped-up crowds flocked to see the pope, and Benedict seemed swept up in the enthusiasm. Twice he referred to Africa as the "continent of hope," and at one point, this consummate theologian even mused aloud about a new burst of intellectual energy in Africa that might generate a 21st century version of the famed school of Alexandria, which gave the early church such luminaries as Clement and Origen.
As counter-intuitive as it may seem to Westerners, it was difficult to find anyone in Cameroon -- at least anyone who wasn't a foreign journalist or missionary, or an employee of an overseas NGO -- for whom the condoms issue loomed especially large. The locals had different opinions on whether condoms are the right way to tackle AIDS, of course, but it didn't seem to dominate their impressions of the event.
Bottom line: Seen from abroad, the trip has been about condoms; on the ground, it's felt like a celebration of African Catholicism. Here's a surreal experience that underscores the disjunction.
On Tuesday, I prepared a piece on the pope's indirect, but unmistakable, rebuke of Cameroon's President Paul Biya - a former Catholic seminarian who has tried repeatedly to wrap himself in the papal flag while Benedict is in town. Billboards around Yaoundè assert a "perfect communion" between the two, and colorful African-style shirts and dresses distributed for the trip are festooned with pictures of Biya and Benedict. Biya is also, however, a classic African strongman, who has ruled Cameroon since 1982 through a blend of occasional repression and constant corruption.
Benedict didn't want to embarrass his host, but he also didn't want the photo-op to imply a papal seal of approval. Thus, without mentioning Biya directly, Benedict said pointedly that Christians must speak out against "corruption and abuses of power." That was enough to set off shockwaves in Cameroon, and it seemed to invigorate local church leaders. The next morning, Cardinal Christian Tumi, Cameroon's lone cardinal, publicly asked Biya to withdraw as a candidate in elections set for 2011, something that previously almost no one would have dared to do.
I was outlining all this in my article when I had to break off to do an interview with CNN International about day one of the trip … which was entirely devoted to the condoms controversy. To be honest, I had to wonder if we were even talking about the same event.
That said, let me be clear: This perception gap is not exclusively, or even primarily, the media's fault. The reporter from French TV who asked Benedict the condom question aboard the papal plane was well within bounds; AIDS is serious business, and it's fair game to ask the pope about it on his first visit to the continent that's been hardest hit by the disease. Once the question was popped, the ball was in Benedict's court. Much of the blame for what happened next, therefore, has to lie at his feet.
By that, I'm not taking any position on the substance of the pope's answer, though in fairness he did no more than repeat church teaching on contraception, as well as the nearly unanimous view of every African bishop I've ever interviewed: that condoms give their people a false sense of invulnerability, thereby encouraging risky sexual behavior. That may be debatable, but one can hardly fault the pope for taking his cues from the bishops on the ground. (Ironically, popes usually get in trouble precisely for not listening to local bishops.)
Setting aside what he said, there's still the matter of whether this was the right time and place to say it - especially since it would inevitably overshadow the message Benedict was flying to Africa to deliver. (It's worth recalling that the pope has been down this road before. En route to Brazil in 2007, he took a question about excommunicating politicians who support abortion rights, thereby blotting day one of his first trip to Latin America out of the sky.)
Anybody who's ever spent time in front of cameras knows how to dance around a question that's not going to lead anywhere good. Benedict could have said something like: "Of course the church is deeply concerned about AIDS, which is why a quarter of all AIDS patients in the world are cared for by Catholic hospitals and other facilities. As far as condoms are concerned, our teaching is well-known, but today isn't the right time for discussing it. Instead, I want to focus on my message of hope to the African people," etc., etc. The story that probably would have resulted - "Benedict shrugs off condoms query" - would hardly have generated a global uproar.
Someone hungry for a silver lining might be tempted to say that the sideshow on condoms made the world pay attention to the Africa trip - except, of course, it didn't. Instead, Africa became a backdrop to another round in the Western culture wars.
Yet however one assigns the blame, the fact remains that international discussion of Benedict in Cameroon has left a badly distorted impression of the trip's aims and content. If the first rule for assessing an event is to understand what actually happened, then drawing conclusions about Benedict's African journey is going to require more than simply following the bouncing ball on the great condom debate.
Published first in the National Catholic Reporter
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