COTONOU, Benin, November 21, 2011 ( – On Sunday, at the closing Mass of his visit to Africa, Pope Benedict XVI presented a document – Africae Munus – to chart evangelization of the continent in the coming years.  The 55-page document contained strong admonitions on protecting life from conception to natural death and on the sacredness of the family.

Regarding HIV/AIDS, which has brought untold death and suffering to Africa, the Holy Father said that while the Church has encouraged a medical and pharmaceutical response, the problem goes deeper. “Above all, it is an ethical problem,” he said. “The change of behaviour that it requires – for example, sexual abstinence, rejection of sexual promiscuity, fidelity within marriage – ultimately involves the question of integral development, which demands a global approach and a global response from the Church.”

Pope Benedict added: “For if it is to be effective, the prevention of AIDS must be based on a sex education that is itself grounded in an anthropology anchored in the natural law and enlightened by the word of God and the Church’s teaching.”

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The pope’s document, a Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, comes in response to the October 2009 assembly of the African Bishops. The Exhortation was signed Saturday and presented Sunday after the Mass concelebrated with 200 bishops from all over Africa. The stadium could hold only 30,000 faithful but another 80,000 participated from outside the structure.

In the document, the pope commended the Bishops of Africa for expressing concern over confusing and ambiguous language in international documents on women’s reproductive health, which could suggest support for abortion.

“The Church’s position on the matter of abortion is unambiguous,” he said. “The child in his or her mother’s womb is a human life which must be protected. Abortion, which is the destruction of an innocent unborn child, is contrary to God’s will, for the value and dignity of human life must be protected from conception to natural death.”

The pope noted that the Catholic Church “acknowledges the courage of governments that have legislated against the culture of death – of which abortion is a dramatic expression – in favour of the culture of life.”

Moreover, he said, “The Church in Africa and the neighbouring islands must be committed to offering help and support to women and couples tempted to seek an abortion, while remaining close to those who have had this tragic experience and helping them to grow in respect for life.”

In separate sections of the exhortation, the pope called on men and women respectively to defend and support life. 

Addressing the men of Africa, the pope said “In union with the Synod Fathers, I encourage Catholic men, within their families, to make a real contribution to the human and Christian upbringing of their children, and to the welcoming and protection of life from the moment of conception.”  He added: “Your witness to the inviolable dignity of every human person will serve as an effective antidote to traditional practices which are contrary to the Gospel and oppressive to women in particular.”

To women, Benedict XVI entreated, “Continue to defend life, for God has made you channels of life. The Church will always support you.”

The full Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Africae Munus is available from the Vatican website here.