The last of the “UCC Firsts”—highlights in the history of the United Church of Christ dating from 1620—listed at the church’s web site is from 1995, fourteen years ago, marking publication of the New Century Hymnal . Nothing much apparently has happened since, except for the continuing loss of membership.

Oh, and the policy of distributing condoms at, among other places, “faith-based educational settings.” I think that is what was once called Sunday school. And at worship, too, on selected occasions, like World AIDS Day. “Praise the Lord and pass the . . . .” Well, maybe that’s not actually said. So all that is new, sort of. Condom promotion has been part of the UCC way of life for a number of years, at least since 1995—certainly that was only coincidentally coincident to the new hymnal.

But the UCC decided March 20 to highlight its condom distribution ministry (that’s what they call it) by capitalizing on the supposed gaffe uttered by Benedict XVI a few days before, on March 17.

The UCC HIV and AIDS Network went off on the pope after his remarks in Cameroon, Africa, where he said that condoms are not effective at preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. “You cannot,” he told the Africans, “resolve [AIDS] with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem.”

The UCC response was to suggest the pope, at best, was out of the loop. The Reverend Michael Schuenemeyer, the UCC’s executive for health and wholeness advocacy, put it out instead, “The availability of condoms as part of a comprehensive approach to HIV prevention sends the right message and more importantly, it saves lives.” He also suggested the UCC condom, uh, ministry, represented “a more scientific and compassionate approach to the prevention of HIV.”

In point of fact, there is no evidence the use of condoms does prevent or has ever prevented the spread of AIDS in Africa, and there is a considerable bit of evidence exactly to the contrary. Leading HIV researcher, Edward C. Green, interviewed in Christianity Today (March 20, same day the UCC blasted Benedict), said flatly that condom usage by Africans simply hasn’t worked. Green argues that African churches and religious bodies have always been right about where to put the emphasis in preventing AIDS—namely, on marital fidelity and abstinence.

In an earlier First Things article , Green further notes:

Consider this fact: In every African country in which HIV infections have declined, this decline has been associated with a decrease in the proportion of men and women reporting more than one sex partner over the course of a year—which is exactly what fidelity programs promote. The same association with HIV decline cannot be said for condom use, coverage of HIV testing, treatment for curable sexually transmitted infections, provision of antiretroviral drugs, or any other intervention or behavior. The other behavior that has often been associated with a decline in HIV prevalence is a decrease in premarital sex among young people.

The UCC’s Schuenemeyer is somewhat to the opposite. “The [UCC] message,” he says, “is rooted in the belief that loving carefully is a moral responsibility. The practice of safer-sex behavior is a matter of life and death. People of faith make condoms available because we have chosen life so that we and our children may live.”

The UCC people of faith using condoms will soon reduce the UCC’s already reduced birth rate, but that’s been happening with or without condoms so it hardly matters, in any case.

But with all the free condom distribution going on, one might expect to see some reduction in the rate of infections. That hasn’t happened, not in the United States at any rate. There were 22,472 new cases of AIDS/HIV among MSMs in 2007, according to the Center for Disease Control. MSMs? CDC does not use the word gay or homosexual, but instead refers to “men having sex with men,” or MSMs, regardless of sexual orientation. Regardless, the number reported continues a troubling up-tick in the rate of infection-between 2001 and 2005 cases involving MSMs went up eleven percent. Gay men make up sixty-eight percent of all men presently living with AIDS, and seventy-one percent of all new cases involving male adults and male adolescents. The gay community remains the single highest source for new infections.

In Africa specifically, the one nation that best reduced high infection rates, Uganda, has seen a slight increase in rates. The moral campaign launched by the Ugandan government, cooperating with Ugandan religious bodies, slackened as donor nations insisted on emphasizing—guess what—the use of condoms. The two nations presently with the highest rates—Swaziland and Botswana—recently have launched fidelity and abstinence campaigns, and there has been some early reported effect in reducing the rates of infection.

Here is a considered judgment: The pope is right; Schuenemeyer is wrong. And the UCC—passing out free condoms instead of arguing hard for chastity and abstinence—is actually helping spread HIV and AIDS infections. The UCC’s “scientific and compassionate approach” is killing people with kindness.