Though Benedict XVI’s brief comments about condoms in response to a reporter’s question seem likely to dominate international headlines on day one of his maiden voyage to Africa, here in Cameroon, a country once rated by Transparency International as the most corrupt on earth, it was another tough papal line that actually raised more eyebrows.
In effect, the pope called on Christians to challenge the endemic corruption that many observers see as a central obstacle to development in African societies.
“In the face of suffering or violence, poverty or hunger, corruption or abuse of power, a Christian can never remain silent,” the pope said during a welcoming ceremony at the airport in Yaoundè, the national capital.
Benedict is making his first trip to Africa March 17-23, visiting Cameroon and Angola.
President Paul Biya, who has ruled Cameroon since 1982 through a combination of what observers describe as intimidation and corruption, stood at Benedict’s side as he spoke. Albeit brief and indirect, the papal language was widely taken as a mild rebuke to Biya, a former Catholic seminarian who frequently trumpets his ties to the Catholic church.
Many Cameroonians say the Catholic church here has at times played a lonely role in demanding greater transparency and democratization, pointing to a string of unsolved murders of priests, nuns and even an archbishop as the price that such outspokenness can sometimes exact.
Benedict also used blunt terms to describe the wider difficulties of Africa.
“Regional conflicts leave thousands homeless or destitute, orphaned or widowed,” the pope said. “In a continent which, in times past, saw so many of its people cruelly uprooted and traded overseas to work as slaves, today human trafficking, especially of defenseless women and children, has become a new form of slavery.
“At a time of global food shortages, financial turmoil, and disturbing patterns of climate change, Africa suffers disproportionately,” Benedict said. “More and more of her people are falling prey to hunger, poverty, and disease.”
To be sure, the pope praised Cameroon for its peacefulness, its record of inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony, and its strong defense of unborn life. (Abortion is illegal here.) Nonetheless, his challenge on corruption can hardly have been what Biya was hoping for; massive billboards plastered throughout Yaoundè trumpet a “perfect communion” between the two figures, a narrative that the pope’s debut does not quite support.
The pope’s impromptu comments on condoms, meanwhile, came in response to a reporter’s question aboard the papal plane. Asked about contraception as part of anti-AIDS efforts, Benedict XVI said, “You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem.”
That position is consistent with long-standing Vatican policy, as well as the line taken by most African bishops, who generally argue for abstinence campaigns rather than condoms as the best way to combat AIDS.
Roughly 22 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are infected with HIV, according to the United Nations. In 2007, three-quarters of all AIDS deaths worldwide were in Africa, as well as two-thirds of all people living with HIV.
When these condom debates arise, Vatican officials typically point out that whatever one makes of the church’s position on birth control, it is nonetheless in the front lines of anti-AIDS efforts. An estimated 25 percent of AIDS sufferers worldwide are cared for by Catholic facilities, a share which rises well above 50 percent in many African nations where the Catholic church is the largest private provider of health care.
Shortly after his election to the papacy, Benedict XVI authorized the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Health Care Workers to study the limited question of whether married couples where one spouse is HIV-positive and the other is not could employ condoms as a means of blocking transmission of the disease. Officially that remains an open question, and Vatican sources today said Benedict’s comments on the plane were not intended to settle the issue.
Popes don’t come to Africa very often, so it’s perhaps inevitable that when they do, expectations soar well beyond the real-world possibilities of what a pontiff can actually accomplish.
Casual conversation around Yaoundè, the national capital, in the run-up to Benedict XVI’s arrival this afternoon makes the point.
“We are impatiently awaiting our pope,” said Anie Ndomo La Rose, a local trader – who, by the way, is actually Protestant. “He will chase away the evil things happening in our country.”
Loubou Charles, among the vast swath of Cameroonian youth looking for work (the official unemployment rate is 30 percent), was more explicit, saying he hopes the pope can turn the tide on corruption.
“If the coming of the pope can cause all those who have stolen state money to bring the money back to the country, it is going to be wonderful,” he said. “Let the mind of the thieves be changed so that they will cease from this act.”
L’anecdote, an independently local weekly, published a front-page special edition this morning with a list of other “burning issues” awaiting Benedict in Cameroon, including:
- Clerical scandals, such as a handful of local cases of priests who have lived in what amount to common-law marriages and fathered children;
- Relations with other Christian denominations and with Muslims. (Some leaders in both groups have voiced complaints that they were excluded from official planning for the papal visit, arguing that Benedict is coming not just as the head of the Catholic church but also as a head of state);
- Three newly created dioceses in Cameroon that are still waiting for bishops;
- The status of Africans in the Vatican (some unnamed African clergy in Rome complained to the newspaper that Africans are under-represented at senior levels, reflecting what they see as latent racism);
- The crisis of governance in Cameroon, referring to a perceived lack of transparency and democratic checks and balances. (The whiff of corruption has even touched the papal visit, as the government has yet to officially publish a budget for the event.)
- Competition for the Catholic church from other religious movements, including Pentcostals, Evangelicals, traditional religions, and even quasi-religious movements such as the Masons. (The robust spiritual climate of Africa was reflected in one local paper which published a rumor that the late John Paul II, during his last visit to Cameroon in 1995, performed an exorcism upon the presidential palace to cast out the ghost of the former president Ahmadou Ahidjo.)
- Bringing clarity to a still-unsolved series of murders of Catholic clergy and nuns in Cameroon, stretching back to the mid-1980s.
In reality, it’s unlikely that Benedict’s three days in Cameroon can trigger a revolution on any of these fronts, at least in the short term.
The expectations themselves nonetheless indicate the excitement surrounding Benedict’s maiden African voyage. That ferment was clearly visible in the streets today in Yaoundè, as large and enthusiastic crowds gathered to welcome the pope.
Tomorrow, Benedict XVI will visit Biya in his resplendent “Palace of Unity,” nestled on a hill overlooking Yaoundè not far from the U.S. embassy. Later the pope will meet with the country’s bishops, and then lead a vespers service for priests, religious, and members of other Christian communities.
On Thursday, Benedict will meet with local Muslim leaders, and will also present the working paper for the African synod. On Friday, he moves on to Angola for the second leg of the Africa trip.
John L. Allen Jr., NCR senior correspondent, is in Cameroon covering the first visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Africa.
Reports he has already filed include:
- Pope to Muslims: 'Religion rejects all violence' 
- Pope demands halt to sexual, financial scandals 
- Pope's condom message resonates with many 
- 'Africa in miniature,' warts and all, awaits Benedict 
- Five reasons the papal trip to Africa is important 
- Cameroon journalist warns of 'cheap political points' from pope’s visit 
- Benedict needs to show that he 'gets' Africa