Wednesday, December 01, 2010

On World Day, "The Many Faces of AIDS"

As previously noted, today marks World AIDS Day... and amid the aftermath of the "Condomgate" controversy sparked by B16's remarks on moral means of combating HIV (or lack thereof) in his freshly-released interview book, it was notable that the Pope broke from his well-honed prior practice and didn't mark today's annual observance with an appeal at the close of today's General Audience.

(At left, among many landmarks worldwide to take on red lights for the occasion was Barcelona's Basilica of Sagrada Familia, which the pontiff formally dedicated in early November.)

In the meantime, though, while the lion's share of the firestorm kicked up by the publication of the pontiff's comments quickly became the usual polarized and predictable -- except, that is, for a stunning turn against Benedict by the flank usually perceived as his "base" -- two pieces that've popped up since the fracas began to wear down are worth a wider audience for the substance they provide, both on the part of historical context and what Benedict's intervention means on the ground.

Before all else, it bears underscoring that, according to at least one well-steeped estimate, across its global works the Catholic church provides roughly a quarter of the medical care for the over 33 million people worldwide afflicted with HIV/AIDS -- including close to half the total treatment efforts in Africa, where two-thirds of the stricken live. (Since 1981, another 25 million worldwide have died from the disease, as 7,000 more people are infected every day.)

As Benedict himself noted in Light of the World, the church "is second to none in treating so many AIDS victims... because she does not speak from the tribunal of the newspapers, but helps her brothers and sisters where they are actually suffering."

Yet again, though, what even the pontiff deemed some sentences later as "the sheer fixation on the condom" served to wipe out everything else.

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As context goes to the recent battle, it's intriguing that from the fallout of the controversy, some later public voices to the fray have begun to recall the first significant teaching contribution of church leadership on the pandemic: The Many Faces of AIDS: A Gospel Response -- the 1987 statement of the US bishops' administrative committee, which speaks on behalf of the entire body outside the latter's twice-yearly meetings.

After the document's release, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- of course, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- offered some input on the bishops' stance... as did an even higher authority.

The Mothership's #2 official at the time, thanks to his blog, now-Bishop Bob Lynch of St Petersburg relates the backstory:
I was not at all surprised by [Benedict's book-]statement because in November of 1986 the Administrative Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued its first statement [Many Faces] on the pandemic and in that document said that applying the morally accepted principal of “the lesser of two evils”, death being the greater evil, under certain circumstances condom use could be morally permissible. A huge uproar greeted this document, even within the bishops’ conference, caused in part by a procedural issue that it had been issued by a committee of the Conference on the very eve of a plenary conference when all the bishops could have debated and decided the issue instead of fifty-two bishops. The guidance of that first document on combatting the spread of HIV-AIDS through a variety of possibilities was also a part of the ensuing uproar and debate. A year later the same conference issued a second statement on the HIV-AIDS pandemic [Called to Compassion and Responsibility] which while it never acknowledged that there was theological error to be found in the first statement chose to drop the section on the use of condoms.

At that time I was working on the forthcoming second pastoral visit of Pope John Paul II to the United States which took place in 1987 and I accompanied the officers of the USCC-NCCB to Rome for their twice yearly visits to the Pope and Curia. They visited Cardinal Ratzinger and the officers of the conference brought up the matter of the first AIDS statement. The then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that in his opinion while the moral theology contained in the first statement was defensible, he had concerns about the pastoral prudence of the condom approach at that time. In a later letter to the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Pio Laghi, Cardinal Ratzinger expressed an opposite opinion on condom use. So it was obviously a matter even then which he was reflecting on and thinking about. Pope John Paul II in his private meeting acknowledged the uproar in the states but did not express great alarm nor was he critical of the application of moral theology in that statement.

So I for one was not surprised when Pope Benedict XVI spoke of a very limited application of the principal of the lesser of two evils in his interview with author Seewald. Does this mean that the Church is advocating condom use? No, abstinence has been and continues to be our message and the proper application and understanding of human sexuality is not threatened either. Rather, the Holy Father is speaking to a possible situation in which a precaution might be used to avoid the greater evil of death. In other words, I found the statement of Pope Benedict to be reflective of his thinking twenty-four years previous in private conversations. Struggling as many confessors might do, the Holy Father simply said there might be cases where the use of a condom can represent the first stirrings of a sense of moral responsibility, if the intent is to save the life of another person. He does not advocate condom use and he does not generally condone condom use. There are enough nuances here to protect the long held Church teaching that condoms are not a “real or moral solution.”

For many years both Cardinal Josef Ratzinger and now Pope Benedict XVI and many bishops around the world have reflected and considered the application of the principle of the lesser of two evils and its application to the HIV-AIDS pandemic. This same Holy Father early in his pontificate asked the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to further study the issue and that work product is not yet finished. In the new book we merely are exposed to the Pope’s reflection on a very small part of the question. He did not intend nor should he be thought of as backing off the long-teaching of the Church on artificial contraception for either of the two purposes of marriage: mutual communion of life and love leading to eternity and bringing children into the world. I feel for Pope Benedict in the context of his remarks above because he is taking it on the chin from left and right at the moment. However, he is a strong teacher and a moral force for good in the world. I feel for him that in the current controversy, right as he predicted, little attention is being given to the role which the Catholic Church around the world plays in treating persons with HIV-AIDS. My beloved Catholic Relief Services is often belittled by US-AID (a branch of the U.S. Department of State) for not distributing condoms in its response to the pandemic yet the same agency often turns to us as first providers in the government program for wider use of anti-retroviral protocols in countries experiencing major incidences of the disease. More will be written on this subject in the years to come and it seems to me that what we have here is an example of the universal pastor confronting a major global killer with thoughtful reflection.
...for a take from the trenches, meanwhile, earlier this week Vatican Radio interviewed Msgr Robert Vitillo -- a priest of New Jersey's Paterson diocese currently serving as a special advisor on HIV/AIDS matters to the church's global "umbrella" group of charity agencies, Caritas Internationalis:
“The new thing in [Benedict's] words is that the Holy Father urges pastoral sensitivity – this has always been part of the teaching and tradition of the Church… yet for us to read these words from the Holy Father is very important. We should not be abandoning those people who are engaged in activities that put themselves and others at risk, but we should be accompanying them to help them become more responsible.”

“I think there are some people who’ve always been fearful of responding to people with HIV-AIDS and have tried to find obstacles for church-related organisations to do that, so they may also react in a similar way towards these words of the Holy Father.”

“In ‘The Many Faces of AIDS’ the United States bishops also acknowledged there needs to be a pastoral approach to those engaged in high risk behaviour…..but it’s important to note that neither the bishops in that document…nor the Holy Father have said we should simply promote or distribute condoms. We’re not affirming behaviour that is outside the teaching of church, but simply trying to help people grow and mature towards a more responsible behaviour.

"The Holy Father endorses the ‘A’ and ‘B’ approach and [yet] acknowledges the ‘C’ would be a first step towards becoming morally responsible.”
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Lastly, while the latest fracas on the topic began in a non-magisterial context, a prior intervention from the Magisterium of the Popes is worth recalling.

In his 1995 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Africa, John Paul II put the challenge thus:
The battle against AIDS ought to be everyone's battle. Echoing the voice of the Synod Fathers, I too ask pastoral workers to bring to their brothers and sisters affected by AIDS all possible material, moral and spiritual comfort. I urgently ask the world's scientists and political leaders, moved by the love and respect due to every human person, to use every means available in order to put an end to this scourge.
And for all the opinions we've seen the last fortnight, hopefully that's one thing everybody can agree on.