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.