Why the new Pope matters

A new Pope was elected today at the Vatican. Pope Francis will be leading about 1.2 billion people in the world who are Catholic and “in communion with the Holy See”. And he will not only be leading them in a spiritual sense. For as long as the Catholic Church has been around, it has “meddled” in matters outside the spiritual world. Perhaps “meddled” is too strong a word, but the Catholic Church has certainly transcended the limits between the spiritual and secular worlds.

Because this blog is primarily about public health and my adventures in it, let me tell you three ways in which I think the new Pope matters when it comes to public health:

1. The Catholic Church has strict instruction on reproductive health and, by association, the spread of sexually transmitted infections. In 2010, about 20 years into the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the Catholic Church, under the direction of Pope Benedict XVI, dropped their ban on condom use in Africa. In those 20 or so years, Africa saw an enormous explosion in the number of cases and deaths from AIDS. Entire villages were decimated and life expectancy rates dropped.

Could the Catholic Church have stepped in early in the epidemic and said what it said in 2010, that condoms were acceptable to prevent infections and death? Of course it could have. Would it have made a difference? Of course! However, how much of a difference is up for debate.

2. Many charitable organizations take their cue from the Catholic Church, and/or Catholics lead many of these organizations. Without a doubt, what the new Pope thinks or how he feels about the work they do will influence that very work. A lot of that work is in public health through relief in areas of the world struck by disease and famine.

3. Going back to reproductive health, the Catholic Church’s stance on issues of family planning will have a direct effect on half of the world’s population… On women. Women are harmed when they are unable to seek family planning (e.g. abortion) because religious concerns seep into public policy. Women are harmed when they have multiple, unplanned pregnancies, especially if they are prone to having complicated pregnancies or live in an area where proper obstetric care is not available. And women are held back from having a career, let alone seek a career, when they have an unplanned pregnancy. (Not all women, however. Some of them make it just fine. I’m writing in general terms. And I’m not even touching the paternalistic nature of the Catholic Church’s leadership.)

Of course, these are just three ways. There are many others. And we in public health and in the sciences would be fools to think that who is the next Pope doesn’t matter. It does, very much. And we must seek to find a balance and even a proper counter balance to the teachings of the Catholic Church as prescribed by the Pope, especially since 1.2 billion Catholics make up the “public” in public health.

I'm a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. All opinions posted here are my own, of course, and they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my school, employers, friends, family, etc. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

5 thoughts on “Why the new Pope matters

  1. Don’t forget the influence of the Catholic Church on immunizations and, really, science in general (e.g., impact on public acceptance of things like evolution, cosmology, etc.). I hope it is a promising sign that Pope Francis was educated in chemistry and taught high school chemistry.

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  2. Personally, I would have liked a little more moderation, more balance, and someone younger. His track record in social justice is good, but it’s (in my opinion) abysmal when it comes to gay rights and women. We’ll see how it goes. He could be like Justice Kennedy, appointed as a conservative but voting as a liberal.

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  3. I did A TON of reading yesterday, from all sorts of sources. There were old news reports out of Argentina about him getting rid of the wait staff and limousine when he became bishop, then using public transport. There were reports of his trips to Africa to serve people with HIV/AIDS. But there were also his pronouncements against same-sex civil unions (and, of course, marriages), some with very harsh language. And, not to be surprising, strong pronouncements against all forms of abortion and artificial birth control. So, yeah, mixed bag, leaning more toward hyper-conservative points of view.

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  4. Immunize.org has a letter from Pope Benedict (when he was Cardinal Ratzinger), about the use of vaccines that are manufactured using cell lines from fetuses aborted 50 years ago.

    It is a very convoluted type of reasoning, but the bottom line is that Catholics should continue to protest the use of those cell lines and press researchers to develop vaccines that don’t require those cell lines…but should accept those vaccines for their children…because the “higher duty” is to protect one’s children and protect society, from infectious diseases.

    http://www.immunize.org/concerns/vaticandocument.htm

    Another statement about, and in defense of, vaccines, from the Catholic Digest website:

    http://www.catholicdigest.com/articles/newsletter/no_sub_ministry/2010/05-05/the-truth-about-vaccines-a-response-to-our-critics

    I’m just as worried about the growing anti-science, pro-life philosophies of ultra conservative Protestant church groups.

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