ROME – One of Africa’s most prominent Catholic prelates says he finds it hard to understand why public opinion so often focuses on condoms when it comes to the fight against HIV/AIDS, when his continent’s experience clearly shows that’s not the best approach.
“Take South Africa. It’s a country that went all-out distributing condoms to all and sundry in order to contain HIV/AIDS, and they’ve always had the highest infection rates,” said Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria.
For a counter-example, Onaiyekan pointed to Uganda.
“Uganda did not condemn condoms, but put a lot of effort into encouraging young people to change their behavior,” he said. “They have worked with religious institutions to carry this message.
“It’s not true that it doesn’t work,” he insists. “It did work there.”
On the other hand, Onaiyekan said that in his view, the question of condom use by a married couple where one partner is HIV positive and the other isn’t, and where the aim is not to block pregnancy but to preserve life, remains an “open question.”
Onaiyekan spoke to Crux during a four-day summit of African Catholic leaders in Rome sponsored by the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture, and titled “African Christian Theology: Memories and Mission for the 21st Century.”
Now 73, Onaiyekan has held virtually every leadership position in African Catholicism at one point or another, and is considered one of the most influential prelates on the continent.
On other matters, Onaiyekan told Crux there’s no “big debate” in Africa over Pope Francis’s document Amoris Laetitia and the issue of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, because people broadly accept the Church’s traditional ban.
“In Africa, for Catholics and non-Catholics, we just believe that there are certain rules you must follow,” he said.
“I like the expression of the pope that [divorced and civilly remarried Catholics] are not, by that fact, excommunicated,” Onaiyekan said. “Now, to say that someone is not excommunicated does not mean they can receive Communion.”
Onaiyekan also said that Pope Francis is popular in Nigeria among his Muslim friends, in part for declaring that Islam is not a terrorist religion. At the same time, he said, this pope is a bit like a Biblical prophet, meaning that his statements sometimes have to be “unpacked.”
“It was left to us to say that yes, Islam is not a terrorist religion, but we still have to deal with the fact that most of our terrorists are Muslims,” he said.
On the rise of President Donald Trump in the United States, Onaiyekan said some Nigerians were hoping he’d be less “cautious” than Barack Obama in helping Nigeria confront the threat of Islamic terrorism, principally the menace of Boko Haram, but that to date they haven’t seen much concrete change.
“So far, not much has happened … We’re waiting,” he said.
Finally, Onaiyekan explained why the fight against corruption has been such a cornerstone of his career.
“For a country like Nigeria, where theoretically we are a rich country, we still see poverty and privation all over,” he said. “Corruption makes it impossible for the wealth of the nation to be properly distributed.”
Onaiyekan spoke to Crux on March 24, and the following are excerpts from that conversation.
Crux: What does Africa make of Donald Trump?
Onaiyekan: I’m not sure I can even answer that question. Donald Trump was a great surprise to us. We thought he wasn’t serious, and even if he was, we thought the Americans were more serious than that. It turned out he’s now your president. The only thing most Nigerians know about Trump is that some Nigerians were denied entry into the United States about a week or two ago, so there is a lot of concern.
As for the performance of Donald Trump so far, there’s not much echo in Nigeria. Some Nigerians were hoping that there may be some changes, some shifts, in American policy, since Trump had promised he would do things differently. Whether those shifts will be good for Nigeria, we still don’t know.
What kind of shifts were they hoping for?
They were perhaps hoping for a better relationship between the United States and Nigeria. Some would be looking to the United States to help us deal with our problems with Muslim terrorists, and they would hope that Trump would be less cautious than Obama in reaching out to helping our government to deal with this menace.
But so far, not much has happened … We’re waiting.
Let me ask you about the other riveting figure on the public stage today, Pope Francis. What do Nigerians make of Francis?
First of all, Nigerians love the pope – any pope. So, they apply this great love also to Pope Francis. I’m not sure that generally Nigerians would be weighing his teaching and his speeches in any way or the other.
I realize that some of his statements have endeared him somehow to some of my Muslim friends, especially when the pope came out very clearly rejecting the idea that Islam is a terrorist religion. Many of my Muslim friends were very, very happy to hear that said, but it obviously goes contrary to the narrative you’re getting in many Christian circles.
Were you happy to hear him say that?
Well, was I happy? Yes, but it’s like Pope Francis is a prophet. He makes a statement, but that statement has to be unpacked. Having said what he did, it was left to us to say that yes, Islam is not a terrorist religion, but we still have to deal with the fact that most of our terrorists are Muslims.
I must say, that statement helps me in my conscious and determined effort to keep reaching out in good relationships with my Muslim friends.
In that sense, Pope Francis helps?
Yes, it helps. My Muslim friends constantly compare the Catholic Church favorably to some other Christian churches, which have some rather strong anti-Muslim language.
In the Nigerian context, would that mean above all the Pentecostals?
Very often, yes.
This morning, your good friend Father Paulinus Odozor gave a paper on Amoris Laetitia, which, as you know, has unleashed a debate in the West over Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. Is that debate going on in Africa?
Let me just say first that what Paulinus failed to tell you is that when Amoris Laetitia was first published, I was at his house at Notre Dame. When he saw the first clips, he got very worried, which of course were the parts in which the press was interested. He got very worried, and practically said that Pope Francis has changed the name of the game. I told him, ‘Let’s wait to get the full story.’
Later I was able to access the full document, and precisely because of this [the way he reacted], I spent the whole night reading through it. Then I told Paulinus, ‘Don’t panic … calm down!’ There’s nothing categorical Pope Francis has said that is turning around, as it were, the traditional positions of the Church on marriage and married morality. The essentials of Catholic married morality are in the first three chapters.
The section that could be the cause of questioning or worry was the last part, in which he was specifically talking about problem situations. He has recognized there are problems. I said, this is what we have to do now. For us who are out there in the field, we are happy that the pope knows we are meeting with problems and so on, and that we are grappling with it just as he’s doing.
There’s nothing the pope has said where we weren’t already working more or less along that line. It may be that a man and a woman are in an irregular condition, but that doesn’t mean they’re excommunicated. We’ve always found a way of welcoming them. Maybe with Amoris Laetitia, we’ll find a better way of welcoming them.
On the other hand, we still let them know that receiving Holy Communion is an external expression of our faith. We cannot judge what is inside your heart, so we must make rules that determine who receives Communion and who does not. Our people are aware that this is the rule. I think what Amoris Laetitia has done for us is to highlight the plight of these people, and to help us, as far as possible, to avoid talking about them in any way that would be spiritually condescending and making them feel at home.
I like the expression of the pope that they are not, by that fact, excommunicated. Now, to say that someone is not excommunicated does not mean they can receive Communion.
Father Paulinus told us that in Africa that there is no debate over the issue of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, because it’s settled – the answer is no, and everyone accepts that. Is that true?
That is true. It’s true – not only for the divorced and remarried, but also for the polygamists, which is the case we have more. Let me just put it this way: In Africa, for Catholics and non-Catholics, we just believe that there are certain rules you must follow. In fact, our Church is famous, even notorious, for having very clear rules. When people say the Catholic Church is “rigid,” they don’t mean it in a negative way. They say, at least they have clear rules.
If you’re a Catholic, then you follow the rules, you know how far you can go and how far you can’t. Others say, oh, the Catholics have their rules, they’re stricter than other Christians in the area of marriage. From that point of view, is there a big debate within the Church on this matter? It’s not really true. There may be some theologians talking about it here and there, but you definitely don’t hear much otherwise, for instance from the bishops’ conferences.
What about from ordinary Catholics in the pews?
Some people … there was one man, one gentleman, who wrote me a long letter a week after [the release] of Amoris Laetitia and said to me, ‘I hope you have read the latest document of the pope.’ Imagine that! He told me that, ‘I hope you bishops and you priests will now start using the language of Pope Francis.’
In other words, “Why can’t you be more like Francis?”
I was rather impressed. If I had not had the challenge to read the text when I was at Notre Dame with Paulinus, I probably would have kept it on my shelf, but I read the whole thing.
I won’t tell the pope that you normally just stick his documents on the shelf.
I try to read them … I certainly read the whole of Laudato Si’!
Shifting gears, it seems that whenever the media talks about Catholicism in Africa, what inevitably comes up is HIV/AIDS and the Church’s teaching on contraception. Over the years, you’ve said the African experience shows that the “ABC” approach works, and yet everyone seems to focus only on “C”, condoms, rather than “A”, abstinence, and “B”, being faithful. Is that still where you are?
That is still where I am. Secondly, in the meantime, a lot of water has passed under the bridge. We have actually found out that when it comes to public health approaches, countries that have gone all-out promoting condoms have had to deal with a more serious crisis with HIV/AIDS. If I may mention a country, take South Africa. It’s a country that went all-out distributing condoms to all and sundry, in order to contain HIV/AIDS, and they’ve always had the highest infection rates.
The other example I give is Uganda.
The country that pioneered the ABC approach …
Yes. Uganda did not condemn condoms, but put a lot of effort into encouraging young people to change their behavior. They have worked with religious institutions to carry this message. I talk about Uganda because this is a case everyone has seen. It’s not true that it doesn’t work. It did work there.
Now when I come to my country, Nigeria, we are somewhere in between. The government is a little restrained in its push for condoms. It supports our efforts to insist on abstinence and changes in behavior. I speak often to the young people, and I tell them that the invention of condoms seems to have ushered in an era of sex without consequences, but HIV/AIDS is now raising the fact that it’s no longer business as usual. My approach then is to say, ‘This is no time to just sleep around carelessly.’
You find they buy that?
They listen. From there, you can tell them, ‘Okay, you might say that you’re going to sleep around because you want to, but please don’t forget there are consequences.’ Plus, I say, ‘You don’t really have to, you know. You could just abstain. If anybody comes and tells you that you’re incapable of being responsible in this matter, that person is not respecting you.’ It works, especially when it’s no longer me who is preaching this, but when young people among themselves, with one another, build this peer group relationship.
This is quite independent of our Catholic doctrine on condoms, first because the question of HIV/AIDS is a matter of life and death, and second, because we’re not only concerned that no Catholic should die of HIV/AIDS, but that no Nigerian should die of HIV/AIDS. For us, we see our position as our own contribution to helping our nation.
Then there’s the whole issue of whether condoms are a perfect solution. It’s well-known that it’s not 100 percent effective, especially the condoms that come out in the villages of Africa.
You’ve said that to me before – that when Western governments or NGOs send condoms to Africa, they’re not brand-new and fully functional. You say they sit on docks for a long time and so on, so they’re degraded by the time they reach people, so their effectiveness rate is even lower.
Exactly. They spend a lot of time on the wharf, and then there’s a whole chain of distribution. By the time they reach the markets and shops, anything can happen. We’re not even thinking of something that is really reliable.
There’s another issue that came out, about condoms and what they call “discordant” couples, a man and a woman, one of whom is positive and the other negative …
Let’s unpack that: A “discordant” couple means a husband and wife, one of whom is HIV positive and the other isn’t, and the question is whether in that context the Church could approve the use of contraception, not to prevent the transmission of life but the transmission of disease.
In that regard, we have always distinguished between the condom as a contraceptive, and the condom as a preservative. The clear doctrine of the Church condemns condoms as contraception, but I do not believe there is any clear doctrine that would condemn condoms for the preservation of life. That can still be left as an open question. That’s presuming it actually preserves life.
The other distinction I make, especially when talking about public policy and public health issues, is that we have to distinguish [the case of] a man and a woman, who have both the right and duty to have sexual intimacy, from the whole question of distributing condoms indiscriminately to students and boys in this community who are not married and who morally have no business with sex in the first place. These distinctions are often not brought up when we are discussing this issue.
When people want to criticize the Church’s position on condoms in the context of HIV AIDS, what often gets left out is that in Africa especially, the Church is the primary caregiver for people who are suffering from HIV/AIDS.
That is the other issue. they think that the only way to deal with HIV/AIDS is to distribute condoms. But we know that that is just one part of the whole story.
Because no matter what you do, some people are going to get infected. The question is, who is going to take care of them?
Who takes care of those who are already hurt? There are so many of them.
You are known for many things, but in particular you are known across Africa as a campaigner against corruption. When General Buhari came to power, there was great optimism he was going to clean up the mess. Where do things stand today, and how effective is the Church in Nigeria in holding this government accountable?
You use the right words. Maybe the word is not ‘serious’, but ‘effective’ in the fight against corruption. There is no doubt that the promise of tackling and dealing with corruption, which was his campaign, moved a lot of people to vote for him, including me. I can now say very clearly that I voted for Buhari.
We should note that General Buhari is a Muslim.
Yes, and there was a lot of campaigning from the other side, that if you voted for Buhari you are voting for the Islamization of Nigeria. However, our great Christian presidents had eight or nine years to prove how wonderfully Christian presidents can perform, and I’m afraid we don’t have much to be proud of.
You essentially helped shame one of those Christian presidents, Obasanjo, into not playing around the constitution to get himself a third term, so you have not shown religious bias in the way you criticize governments.
[Under this president] it started out alright, but then with the way he was going about it, it seemed that we were not going about this anti-corruption thing in the right way. It’s not enough to arrest a few people. We told him, you must handle this anti-corruption business properly, [including] respecting the rule of law. There was a clear feeling that the friends of Mr. President were exempt from harassment.
[People thought], you’re attacking corruption, but it appears that you are not impassioned in the matter. Now we are in a situation where we’re seeing that the problem of corruption in Nigeria is endemic, and therefore is not so much about Mr. X or Mr. Y, but a system which is corrupt, and that has not yet been addressed … which means that the corruption is still going on.
When we’ve spoken in the past about why corruption is such an important issue to you and many other African bishops, the answer has been that it’s key to tackling everything else. You can’t fix poverty, you can’t fix illiteracy and all those things, without facing it. You could have the best foreign aid plan in the world, the U.S. could quintuple what it spends on foreign aid next year, and if three-quarters of it is still being siphoned off and wasted, then what’s the point?
For a country like Nigeria, where theoretically we are a rich country, we still see poverty and privation all over. Corruption makes it impossible for the wealth of the nation to be properly distributed.
Above all, corruption implies that the decision-makers are all rich! That means they are unable to even imagine what my cousins and brothers at home are going through, and therefore the priorities of the government are completely different from the perspectives of the bishops.