Hard News by Russell Brown


Surely, if God actually chose the Pope it would be much simpler. Just put everyone's name in a hat, and have an innocent child draw out the name of the next pontiff. If God wants an African Pope, or a Latin American one - or for that matter a female one - then that's what'll come out. Surely. Or in keeping with John Paul II's fondness for new technology, you could set up a nice little quantum experiment to do the same job. That would be cool.

But no, instead, there are whispering campaigns, pre-emptive leaks and, generally, all manner of politicking. Essentially, liberal clergy are deeply concerned at indications that the ultra-conservative Cardinal Ratzinger (nicknamed the "Darth Vader" of the Vatican) has the inside running.

Ratzinger has taken a hard line on preventing those whose thoughts are at variance with church doctrine from taking Communion (he says it is permissible to disagree with the Holy Father on capital punishment and the waging of war, but not on euthanasia or abortion). He has a fan club, but is not very popular at home in Germany.

New Zealand theologian Mike Riddell considered The Ratzinger Doctrine in 2000, and found "no surprise in the fact that Ratzinger, the Vatican's Schwarzenegger of doctrine, should come out with a statement reasserting Catholic monopoly on divine revelation. But the seal of papal authority on such revisionist diatribe has insiders disturbed."

And this article by Megan Hartman offers a handy timeline of the debate in the church regarding contraception, both before and after the Humanae Vitae in 1968, in which Ratzinger features.

Although John Flanagan predicted a softening of the Vatican's attitude to contraception (which is frequently ignored in the developed world) the Church's line has held fast in some developing countries, including the Philippines, where the Diocese last month told government health workers who promoted contraception not to bother turning up for Communion.

The faithful point to escalating divorce rates (not in New Zealand, actually) and ageing European populations as proof of the church's wisdom on contraception. David Rockefeller put the alternative case in a great essay in 1997, in which he presciently saw the gains of recent decades being eroded under pressure from religious conservatives:

For women, limited options can be deadly. Some 585,000 women die of pregnancy-related causes every year, 1,600 every day. Nearly half of those women would still be alive if they could have prevented unwanted pregnancies; nearly all would be saved if they had access to adequate reproductive health care. The leading cause of maternal death – postpartum hemorrhage – is most common among poor women who have undergone many closely spaced births. For every woman who dies in childbirth, another 30 suffer from serious maternity-related disabilities, which frequently lead to a lifetime of suffering. And every year 50 million women abort unwanted pregnancies, often in circumstances where abortion is illegal and unsafe, and 75,000 die in the attempt.

Where women lack reproductive health services, children die as a result. Every year, seven million infants die because their mothers were not physiologically ready for pregnancy or lacked obstetric care. Poor children born into large families are far more likely to die before their fifth birthday than children in smaller families. This is especially true when births follow one another closely. In poor families, children born less than a year and a half apart are twice as likely to die as those born two or more years apart. When mothers die in childbirth, their children also have dim prospects for survival.

And, where parents are not free to limit the size of their families, they cannot help but invest less in the welfare of each child. Poor children from large families are less well nourished and less likely to attend school than poor children from small families. Sadly, unwanted children fare the worst: they are more likely to be neglected, malnourished and abused than their wanted counterparts.

It's currently very fashionable for political conservatives to blather on about "abstinence" as if it were some magic invocation that fixed everything (Deborah Coddington even managed some hypocritical bitching around the A-word in her honeymoon column from San Francisco). And NZ Pundit and I argued about this column by Mark Steyn in the Daily Telegraph:

But the most effective weapon against the disease has not been the Aids lobby's 20-year promotion of condom culture in Africa, but Uganda's campaign to change behaviour and to emphasise abstinence and fidelity - i.e., the Pope's position.

This is classic Steyn: smug, censorious, hectoring - and pretty much fact-free. Uganda's success in slashing HIV infection rates did not come from a rejection of "condom culture" but exactly the reverse. And as this very good (and fact-filled) story from the New York Review of Books demonstrates, that success is now under threat.

Oh, and if you're looking for interesting coverage of the papal vote, Paul Wilkes on BeliefNet seems both intelligent and informed.

I've shamed Deborah Hill Cone into resuming her blog, even if she has just bunged a couple of columns in there. But her Mediawatch appearance on Sunday has won her a fan in blogdom ("Don't know what she looks like, but from her writing, what a babe").

Act's Muriel Newman presumably decided that she didn't already look weird enough on Eating Media Lunch and late last week released a newsletter headed The Government's Gay Agenda. What's got her going is a couple of policy proposals aimed at getting an idea of how many gay folk there really are - not unreasonable when you're making legislation that affects them. She also passes on a constituent's concerns about a camp (no pun intended) for young GLBT people which could amount to "government funded recruiting grounds for those with alternative sexual agendas." Given that the event is being jointly organised by the police, it seems unlikely to function as either a gay shag-fest or a "recruiting ground", but whatever …

No Right Turn has made a start on the election campaign with a candidate survey canvassing issues ranging from marijuana decriminalisation to the use of the law on sedition and the handling of the Zaoui case. They're not trick questions, and it would be nice to see candidates go on the record. He's had one response so far, from Hamish McCracken, the Labour candidate for East Coast Bays.

Anyway: I only noticed yesterday that the web stats package that CactusLab runs for Public Address now has a geolocation plug-in. Cool. The most common destination for the pages we've served so far this month is, unsurprisingly, New Zealand, with just shy of 80,000 pages. But the US puts in a solid showing, with more than 20,000, followed by Britain on about 8000, and Australia with about 4300.

But next is ... Mexico! Persons unknown in that fine country have viewed more than 2000 Public Address pages in April. I'm not sure if that has anything to do with David Slack's gig writing speeches for a prominent politician there. Less surprising is a sound result from Japan, where I know we have some long-term expat readers.

Thereafter, Germany, France and Canada are clustered between 1000 and 1500. Further down the list, we've served more pages to Algeria (54) than to the Czech Republic (51). But that's still more than South Africa, surprisingly low on only 36 pages till yesterday. We had visits from Iran (17 pages), the Ukraine (6), Georgia (5), Syria (2) and Zimbabwe, with a rather mournful one single page served there.

The list reflects population, respective Internet penetration, language spoken - and where the local diaspora reaches. I know that we have expat readers in some very distant places, and I've decided I'd like to hear from you. A bit like The Expat Files, but focusing on where you're at, rather than thinking of home.

So ... how's life? What's a working day like where you are? How are the people? It is heaven or hell? How's the food? What do you like best? What's commanding the news headlines where you are? What are the politics like?

Send anything you've got to say to me via the feedback link at the bottom of this post, with the subject line "Dispatches" and I'll collate and post it. I can maintain your anonymity if need be.