Toynbee: Pope Killed Millions

Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee has a screed against the late Pope John Paul II that makes Christopher Hitchens seem positively devout by comparison.

Not in my name

The Vatican is not a charming Monaco for tourists collecting Ruritanian stamps or gazing at past glories in the Sistine Chapel. It is a modern, potent force for cruelty and hypocrisy. It has weak temporal power, so George Bush can safely pray at the corpse of the man who criticised the Iraq war and capital punishment; it simply didn’t matter as the Pope never made a serious issue of it or ordered the US church to take strong action.

The Vatican’s deeper power is in its personal authority over 1.3 billion worshippers, which is strongest over the poorest, most helpless devotees. With its ban on condoms the church has caused the death of millions of Catholics and others in areas dominated by Catholic missionaries, in Africa and right across the world. In countries where 50% are infected, millions of very young Aids orphans are today’s immediate victims of the curia. Refusing support to all who offer condoms, spreading the lie that the Aids virus passes easily through microscopic holes in condoms – this irresponsibility is beyond all comprehension.

This is said often, even in this unctuous week – and yet still it does not permeate. He was a good, caring man nevertheless, they say, as if it were a minor aberration. But genuflecting before this corpse is scarcely different to parading past Lenin: they both put extreme ideology before human life and happiness, at unimaginable human cost. How dare our prime minister go there in our name to give the Vatican our approval for this? Will he think of Africa when on his knees today? I trust history will some day express astonishment at moral outrage wasted on sexual trivia while papal celebrity and charisma cloaked this great Vatican crime.


In 1971 I interviewed Mother Teresa and asked how she justified letting starving babies be born to die on Calcutta streets for lack of contraception. She said sublimely that every baby entering the world was another soul created in praise of God, even if it lived only a few hours. She was never keen on cures: suffering was a gift of God that enabled those who cared for the afflicted to demonstrate their love. She was beatified by John Paul II for their shared religious mania. Those who met them talk of an aura of love, power, listening and intensity. But goodness is in doing good; good intent is no excuse for murderous error.

While I more-or-less share Toynbee’s views on contraception and the absurdity of allowing human suffering simply for its own sake, criticizing the pope for being Catholic is absurd. The pope is not Lenin. His only power is moral suasion. While the Church is totalitarian in its message, it is not totalitarian in its reach. Millions of American Catholics cheerfully ignore their church’s teachings on birth control, for example. Russians who ignored Lenin and Stalin were slaughtered. This difference is not merely theoretical.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bill K says:

    What would you say of Bush in this exact situation then? He actually can stop condoms from going into Africa, he actually can stop doctors from going in if they advocate condoms.

  2. James Joyner says:

    I disagree with those policies, although I think the democratic process can rightfully make them. They’re rather longstanding and bipartisan, too.

    Plus, it’s not as if the U.S. has a naval blockade up. Others, including private American aid groups, can and do take condoms to Africa.

  3. Meezer says:

    People who believe in such things do not believe in “sexual trivia.” They (and I, though not Catholic) believe that in only one thing can man share the Divine while still on this earth: the power to create life. To take this power lightly is grievous sin.
    People do not die because they have too many siblings. They die because there is not (in many cases) a way to influence currupt governments for good. There is plenty of food in the world, and to spare.
    People are not orphans because of lack of condoms. They are orphans because of poor behavioral choices.
    Last week, a young high school girl was killed while walking to a track meet. It wasn’t walking that killed her. It was a *choice* of what beverage to drink made by the man who killed her with his car.

  4. Matt says:

    Bonus points for use of the word “suasion”!

  5. Paul says:

    Um, Ms. Toynbee leaves out an important part of John Paul II’s message, sexual abstinence unless married. It’s very old fashioned and not PC, but it works every time and much better than condoms. It’s very hard to get an STD by shaking hands and smiling.

  6. Kathy K says:

    Unfortunately, Paul, it’s quite easy to get STDs from a cheating husband, in a culture where it is expected that husbands cheat.

    And I don’t believe the church encourages sexual abstinence after marriage.

  7. Gregory Carlin says:

    I think the editor should have been on the phone to Ms Toynbee to remind her that the Roman Pontiff was of fixed views, he was not Pol Pot. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on condom social marketing and it hasn’t worked. Condoms do very little unless men are prepared to use them and generally in Africa they are not. The Pope had less impact on HIV than the male phenomena of demand sexuality. The Vatican influence within the context of prostitution and homosexuality is slight. The highest rates of HIV in Africa relate to geography with small Catholic populations, the proportion of Catholics in South Africa for example is quite small. Polly Toynbee seems to be suggesting that the human condition for Africans is to be polygamous by nature, she also seems to be alluding to the possibility in her article that there are far too many of them. According to the UN there are no examples of HIV epidemics resolved by programs based primarily on condom promotion. Abstinence and fidelity are not workable options for a constituency seeking to anchor promiscuity and transactional sex as the human condition.