As a growing source of influence in Africa, the Catholic Church is obligated to weigh the continent’s difficulties with special care. Thus it was dismaying when Pope Benedict XVI, en route to a week’s visit there last month, said that condoms were not the answer to Africa’s AIDS epidemic; in fact, distributing condoms “increases the problem.”

… Condoms’ effectiveness in reducing the spread of AIDS has been documented by numerous studies. …

The Catholic Church’s longstanding ban on contraception is widely known, and includes condoms. That the pope would offer his first public endorsement of this doctrine during a visit to Africa was, at best, poor timing. At worst, it was a harsh denial of reality. Public health workers who have struggled to promote condom use will now have to work harder. Many Africans, particularly those who are poor or uneducated, are apt to take this powerful man’s words to heart.

While Catholic populations are shrinking elsewhere, they have been growing impressively in Africa. The Vatican says that Catholics now are 17 percent of Africa’s population, up from 12 percent about 20 years ago. The Church thus has an unusual opportunity to lead. It can make a profound difference in the struggle to contain AIDS, as much by what it does not say as what it says. Unfortunately, Pope Benedict’s criticism of condoms, and preference for self-restraint, ignores the need to deal as pragmatically as possible with the crisis at hand.