It all started with a full-page advert in the Sunday Nation and a billboard near the Consolata Shrine Catholic Church in Nairobi.
In the adverts, a US-based organisation — Catholics for Choice (CFC) — was urging Catholic faithful to embrace condom use, against the church’s position which supports abstinence for they yet-to-marry and faithfulness among the married.
As the storm kicked off by the adverts settles, Catholic faithful in the country are divided on the way forward over the controversial and divisive condom debate.
The advert said: “We believe in God, we believe that sex is sacred, we believe in caring for each other, we believe in using condoms and good Catholics use condoms.”
On its website, the organisation says the adverts are being run as part of an initiative dubbed “Condoms4Life”. The initiative “is an unprecedented worldwide public education effort to raise public awareness about the devastating effect of the bishops’ ban on condoms”.
The billboard that stood near the Consolata Shrine Catholic Church in Westlands was seen by the Catholic leadership in Kenya as a direct jibe.
A few days after the advert appeared, the Kenya Episcopal Conference, led by John Cardinal Njue, came out with guns blazing and disowned the adverts.
“These adverts deliberately ridicule the Catholic teaching on responsible sexual behaviour across all ages and quickly proclaim the use of condoms,” charged Cardinal Njue.
He added: “Catholics for Choice are not Catholics in the sense of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Catholics are Pro-Life and not Pro-Choice.”
Nairobi auxiliary bishop David Kamau – Cardinal Njue’s assistant in the Archdiocese of Nairobi – told Lifestyle that they have unsuccessfully tried to trace the people behind the adverts.
“They are anonymous because we have tried to look for them but haven’t located anyone,” said Bishop Kamau.
Indeed, the adverts were placed through an advertising agency based in San Francisco, US. The bishops have advised Catholics to ignore the adverts, saying the communication was not from the Catholic Church.
“We wish to assure all the Catholics and people of goodwill that the stand of the Universal Catholic Church on condom use has not changed,” said the bishops.
The statement by the Kenya Episcopal Conference drew a counter reaction from the CFC leaders in the US, who faulted the bishops’ stance.
“The campaign is vital,” said CFC president and campaign co-ordinator Jon O’Brien, ‘because the bishops’ recent activities are not representative of Catholic teachings or beliefs. Catholics do support the use of condoms, and they do use them to protect themselves and their partners.”
Mr O’Brien said the ad was based on good science since more than 1.6 million people are living with HIV and Aids in Kenya, and condoms are an evidence-based method for preventing the spread of the HIV.
“There are a billion Catholics around the world, and here in Kenya we represent a third of the population. On the issue of condom use the Kenyan bishops don’t speak for Catholics here in Nairobi, or anywhere else,” said O’Brien.
But according to Cardinal Njue, sex should be practised in the context of marriage. In the Catholic doctrine against contraceptives, married couples are encouraged to be faithful in their marriage while the young people are encouraged to abstain until marriage.
Canon Prof Joseph Galgalo, Vice-Chancellor, St Paul’s University, however, says the condom debate should be detached from the moral question of sex outside marriage.
“If there are discordant married couples, they should be allowed to use condoms to guard against HIV transmission and reinfection,” said Prof Galgalo. “Single people should abstain.”
The Anglican Church canon says people who are single but sexually active should not claim to profess any faith.
But the hardline stance by Catholic bishops on condom use has been attacked as being out of touch with reality.
A recent international poll found that Catholics in Ghana, Ireland, Mexico, the US and the Philippines believe using condoms for HIV prevention is pro-life because they help save lives.
And in 2006, a survey conducted by Steadman (now Synovate) revealed that more Catholics support use of condoms compared to followers of other faiths.
“It is very apparent that the Catholic church’s official position is at odds with most of its members, and thus needs to do a lot more work in its pursuit of its policy in this particular area, or simply tolerate their dissent,” said a section of the report.
The Synovate survey results prompted Mombasa Archbishop Boniface Lele to declare that some adjustments were needed on the issue. “With some counselling – and this is something we don’t tell everyone – you can ask couples to use condoms, so that the rate of reinfection goes down,” he was quoted as saying.
In 2010, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI said condom use can be justified in some cases to help stop the spread of Aids. The one example he cited as a possibly appropriate use was by male prostitutes.
Bishop Kamau, however, argues that the ban on contraception only targets believers and practitioners of the Catholic teachings.
“How many people read the Bible but do not practise what it says?” posed the bishop.
But the hardline stance has also been dismissed as untenable, especially in sub-Saharan Africa where HIV infection rate remains high.
Last year alone, 1.2 million people died from Aids-related causes in the region alone, according to a report by UNAids. And in 2011, an estimated 23.5 million people living with HIV resided in sub-Saharan Africa, representing 69 per cent of the global HIV burden.
According to the Kenya Aids Epidemic Update (2011) by the National Aids Control Council, around 92,000 new infections are being recorded every year in Kenya.
But despite the grim statistics, the church in Kenya has consistently sabotaged efforts to combat the scourge, particularly those touching on condom use.
In March, the government was forced to pull down an advert which encouraged promiscuous partners in marriages to use condoms. Anglican Church’s Bishop Julius Kalu said the advert promoted extra-marital affairs and sex among school pupils.
“There are better ways of passing useful information to society. This one has certainly failed,” he said. “It openly propagates immorality, especially when all family members are gathered before television sets, waiting to watch news.”
The advert was designed to stem the high rate of infection in married couples. The Kenya HIV Response and Modes of Transmission Analysis of 2009 estimated that more than 44 per cent of all new HIV infections in Kenya are occurring in stable or long-term relationships including marriages.
The study further showed that condom use in multiple and concurrent sexual partnerships is low. Condoms, when used correctly and consistently, are highly effective in preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), proponents argue.
A large body of scientific evidence shows that male latex condoms have an 80 per cent or greater protective effect against the sexual transmission of HIV and other STIs.
Besides preventing HIV transmission, condoms are also used for family planning. In what fiscal planners have termed the next nightmare, Kenya is currently experiencing a population boom with one million children being born each year.
It is estimated that the population will balloon to 64 million from the current 42 million people by 2030. In some instances, a couple sires up to 13 children whom they can barely provide for. The Kenya Economic Report prepared by KIPPRA in 2009 showed that an estimated 1.8 million children (30 per cent) are classified as chronically undernourished.
The report further indicates that about half of Kenya’s population is poor, and about 7.5 million people live in extreme poverty. Over 10 million also suffer from chronic food insecurity and poor nutrition.
But Bishop Kamau says “people are not animals and should thus use natural birth control methods to plan their families”.