Challenging the Conventional Wisdom

Surprise! Surprise! The Pope said something about sex and the secular culture went bonkers. This has happened periodically for 40-plus years — Pope speaks about sex, secularists gnash their teeth — and chances are good it will go on happening farther into the future than anyone can now see.

The occasion for the uproar this time was something Pope Benedict XVI said March 17 on the plane carrying him and a traveling press corps on a weeklong visit to Africa: “You can’t resolve [the AIDS epidemic] with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem.”

Without getting bogged down in technical arguments about the safety and efficacy of condoms in fighting AIDS, I’ll only say that, just on the face of it, the Pope was obviously right. After all, if you really want to halt the spread of AIDS, then you have to halt the behavior that causes it to spread. What’s to argue about?

But of course that isn’t really the issue in this controversy. The real explanation for the outburst of secularist fury that greeted Benedict’s remark lies in its implied challenge to secularist dogma.

I mean the dogma that no one ever under any circumstances can be allowed to question the wisdom, excellence, virtue, merit, and all-round good sense of permissive sex. From that point of view, the beauty of condoms is that they provide a measure of protection against HIV infection, without requiring any further modification of sexual behavior.

Yet the Church does challenge the secularist conventional wisdom about sex. Indeed, it has done so from the start. Sex is a very good thing, it says, but only when and if used within a framework of rational, moral restraint. Otherwise sex is at risk of becoming a destructive force — as in fact has happened in these latter days of Western secularism.

The disastrous consequences of denying this fundamental Christian insight about sex are overwhelmingly apparent today. Yet the secular culture has never chosen to acknowledge them, and — heaven knows! — it isn’t about to do so now.

No doubt the Pope can stand up under the hammering he’s gotten — and can expect to get all over again next time he says something about sex that the secularists don’t like. The backbone issue doesn’t pertain to him but to us. For we are the ones who have to suffer the sneers directed at us by the entertainers, journalists, and chatty academics of our talking heads culture.

And in fact not all Catholics are able to handle this browbeating. More than 40 years ago, for example, many defections occurred in response to the pronouncement by an earlier Pope — Paul VI — that, as the Church had taught all along, artificial birth control was indeed morally wrong. Catholic teaching on sexual morality remains a source of scandal for many of the Church’s nominal members — to say nothing of former members — today.

But take courage. Christianity faced an even tougher challenge two millennia ago in the context of the pagan Roman Empire. Then it had less access to the machinery of opinion formation than it does now. Yet the Church not only survived but prevailed, as it has continued to do amid the ups and downs of history ever since.

Survive and prevail, we believe, the faith will keep on doing until history itself comes to an end. The peculiar secular sexual obsessions of the present day will pass. The understanding of human sexuality proclaimed by the Church will remain. It has the distinct advantage of being true.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

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  • Warren Jewell

    I was taught by a solid Bible scholar that wisdom is ‘perceiving things from God’s perspective’. It is how I know, for one thing, that I am NOT YET wise.

    But, then, how ‘conventional’ can wisdom be? What is ‘conventional’ is all too human. That aspect of wisdom that has it as a virtue gift from God knocks that it is ‘conventional’ into a cocked hat. What is conventional is selfish pride, and a conscience formed from concupiscence and greed, and having little more awareness than that frog settled into water moving to boiling.

    Shouldn’t this ‘conventional wisdom’, then, be very like the sheer idiocy that condoms are effective? The intemperate lust that non-marital sex is some purported ‘right’? I would think that the correct term for it is ‘ignorant sinful pride’, don’t you? Maybe we need an encyclical in which Papa Benedict contrasts this ‘ignorance’ with learning truth and forming the conscience. Comparing sin to both goodness and the grace which can help us to goodness, holiness, sanctity – you know the list of ultimate values. He can take pride apart over the humility needed to convert and confess.

    Just because the minions of the terribly mis-stated ‘conventional wisdom’ ignore perdition doesn’t mean perdition ignores them. Their misguided ignorant sinful pride really needs some guidance.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    The culture’s response is pure hypocrisy. No one is distributing free antiretroviral drugs. Just condoms. And “just condoms” is a guarantee that AIDS will increase, not decrease. There are actually several reasons for this. Mr. Shaw explicitly states one of them: promiscuous sex spreads AIDS. Monogamous sex within the context of marriage does not.

    The other big reason is this. If one is generous, then the perfect use of condoms is 97% effective in preventing pregnancy. This means that in a year’s time, three of every hundred women making perfect use of condoms will get pregnant. However, an average woman is fertile only 25% of the time, and even when fertile, not all women will get pregnant. All this means that some portion of this perfect use effectiveness is due to a woman’s natural infertility. Finally the statistics get skewed toward “effectiveness” with the increasing prevalence of STDs in any population, an occurrence which greatly increases the natural infertility built into, and unacknowledged by, the contraception effectiveness statistics.

    What does all this mean? Well, the HIV virus does not care whether a woman is fertile or not. Exposure means infection. One could divide a woman’s cycle into four equal parts, only one of what is fertile. But all of the condom pregnancy failures occur during this fertile portion. Yet a condom’s barrier also fails in the other three parts of a woman’s cycle. Those failures simply do not show up in the failure statistics. But HIV exposure occurs any time an infected person has unprotected sex with another. Thus, you must at least quadruple the condom failure rates to arrive at a possible HIV exposure rate. That means the exposure rate, even with the perfect use of condoms is at least 12%. With promiscuous sex, that is an extraordinarily high rate of potential exposure because promiscuous sex is sex with more than one partner – and when several partners are involved, it is increasingly likely that one or several of them will have HIV. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that 12% of all promiscuous individuals will be exposed to the AIDS virus in any given year, even with perfect condom use. With monogamous use of condoms, one’s partner either has HIV already or does not. If not, then there is no risk – and no need for condoms. If so, then 12% of all perfect condom users will be exposed to HIV every year because one’s only partner always already has AIDS. No wonder AIDS rates always go up in tandem with condom distribution rates

    But there is, of course, more. Africans are aware that promiscuity drives HIV rates. Moreover, they know that there is no effective treatment for them. Antiretroviral treatments can cost several days’, weeks’, or even months’ wages in Africa. And those treatments are not being handed around with the ubiquitous condoms. Because Africans possess this knowledge – notwithstanding the infantile treatment granted them by the secular culture – they also know that the only hope their children have of escaping AIDS is to avoid promiscuous sex. And African parents do not want their children living in the AIDS cesspool that Western secularism promises them.

    It is interesting to note that in the predominantly Christian and Muslim parts of Africa, AIDS infection rates are much lower than elsewhere, independent of condom distribution rates. This is because promiscuity is properly viewed as evil by both serious Christians and Muslims.

    Promiscuity – and all that abets it, including condoms – is the proper enemy here.

  • Warren Jewell

    Ahhhh – to reply to myself with direct evidence: As one old saying goes, though I paraphrase, ‘delve in prayer long enough and you’ll have an answer’:
    The language of the cross may be illogical to those who are not on the way to salvation, but those of us who are on the way see it as God’s power to save. As scripture says: I shall destroy the wisdom of the wise and bring to nothing all the learning of the learned. (1Corinthians 1:18-19; Terce (mid-morning ‘little hour’) of the Liturgy of the Hours)

    Of course, we can beg the questions:
    Have the ‘conventionally wise’ ignorant sinful proud really ever been ‘wise’?
    Is what they have learned worth learning, by the standard of the Cross?
    For instance, one eloquent rhetorician most of us know, a kind of ‘distorted populist’, has seemed little of wise and doubtful of learned, to me.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    From “Harvard Researcher Agrees with Pope on condoms in Africa,”

    “Green recalls that when the AIDS epidemic hit Africa, the ‘Industry’ began using AIDS as a ‘dual purpose’ marketing strategy to get more funding for condom distribution. This, he claims, effectively took ‘something that was a 2nd or 3rd grade device for avoiding unwanted pregnancies’ and turned it into the ‘best weapon we [had] against AIDS.’

    The accepted wisdom in the scientific community, explained Green, is that condoms lower the HIV infection rate, but after numerous studies, researchers have found the opposite to be true. ‘We just cannot find an association between more condom use and lower HIV reduction rates’ in Africa.”

    Here’s my new conclusion: condoms == colonization. It’s the new wave of Western conquest in Africa.