- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

Faith often gets short shrift in the news - unless a little sex and politics are thrown in.

Unprecedented pontiff bashing has taken hold in the press - prompted by Pope Benedict XVI’s criticism of the use of condoms in anti-AIDS programs, made on his arrival Tuesday for a weeklong tour of Africa.

“This is one of the most horrifically ignorant statements made by a world leader since former President George W. Bush’s promise to ‘smoke ‘em out’ in reference to terrorist leaders including Osama bin Laden,” said Bonnie Erbe, a PBS host and columnist.

A London Times editorial called the pope a “threat to public health” while Times columnist Libby Purves deemed him a “scheming, authoritarian torturer,” adding, “I want him dead.” The pope “deserves no credence when he distorts scientific findings about the value of condoms in slowing the spread of the AIDS virus,” said a New York Times editorial.

“Impeach the pope,” said Robert S. McElvaine in The Washington Post’s “On Faith” Web site. “While we’re at it, let’s replace him with a woman.”

That observation in particular set off Catholic League President William Donohue, who called the column “hate speech,” and criticized Post writer Sally Quinn, who moderates the page.

“Sally Quinn showcases bigotry. This is the kind of rant we would expect to find on the bathroom wall of a summer camp in Martha’s Vineyard,” Mr. Donohue said.

Only 1 percent of the news is devoted to faith issues, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Not this time, though. In the immediate wake of the pope’s condom comment, close to 4,000 news stories appeared on the comment.

“I don’t think the Vatican necessarily wanted to generate the coverage they got - which was largely critical and overwhelmed every other message the pope wanted to publicize,” said David Gibson, author of “The Coming Catholic Church” and “The Rule of Benedict,” a biography of the pontiff.

“The mainstream media is also part of the problem, in that you say the word ‘Africa’ and editors’ eyes glaze over - as do those of readers and viewers. For all the enormous issues in play in the pope’s visit, this trip was not generating a lot of headlines, and as soon as the pontiff uttered the word ‘condom,’ it was like manna from media heaven,” he said.

“The big question is whether the pope and the Vatican believe the statement that condoms encourage the spread of AIDS, or whether they were misinformed. There was an effort to backtrack somewhat, by editing slightly the ‘official’ text to indicate Benedict said that condoms posed a ‘risk’ of worsening the situation,” Mr. Gibson added. “That is a significant alteration, and indicates they want to hedge their bets on the science of the issue, which has become the core of the debate.”

But some of the pope’s defenders cite statistics.

“I am not surprised about the bashing of Pope Benedict. But I am surprised at the intensity of it. There aren’t any real triggers that could justify such ferociousness,” said Alejandro Bermudez, director of the Catholic News Agency.

“He mentioned condoms in passing. His real point was that a significant moral change is the answer and human commitment. The fact that the pope won’t endorse condoms just infuriates some people,” Mr. Bermudez said. “Reality is on the pope’s side. Between 1999-2001, the number of condoms distributed in Africa went way up. And so did the HIV rates.”

Among the pontiff bashing was Catholic bashing as well.

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