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The AIDS Epidemic – why blame the Church?

Sr. Mary Pilar Verzosa, RGS


BEINGS a member of PHILCHAN (Philippine Catholic HIV AIDS Network), I am always on the lookout for any publications on the topic dealing with HIV-AIDS.  This group was started over a year ago with Bishop Broderick Pabillo as chairman because this advocacy is part of some NASSA projects. I was quite peeved then when I came across the Editorial of Phil. Daily Inquirer last July 8, 2012 titled “Overlooked Epidemic” because once again, the bias of some writers against the Catholic Church was evident. I alerted members and indeed, quite a few responded immediately. I would like to quote from this letter made by Fr. James McTavish, a physician and moral theologian, to make sure that it will reach many people since, in our experience,  we are never sure if a letter we send to a newspaper will ever get published.

Here is his letter in full:

“The recent PDI editorial “Overlooked Epidemic,” draws attention to the rising number of HIV/AIDS cases in the Philippines. It correctly points out that the country needs to invest more funds and mobilize more resources to combat the growing epidemic. Unfortunately however it overlooks some vital facts. Teresita Marie Bagasao, who heads the Manila office of the United Nations Program on HIV-AIDS (UNAids), is quoted as saying “The country also needs to focus on where the disease is.” To correctly address any epidemic it is vital to focus on the most at risk groups and where the disease actually is. Surprisingly the editorial failed to do just that—to focus on where the disease is and those most at risk. If we do not focus we end up just shooting in the dark. The Church also becomes a victim of unjust and haphazard firing with the criticism that she “has not been of much help, with its continued opposition to the use of condoms.” Let us analyze this statement to see if it has a basis or whether vital facts have been overlooked.

The Church and other faith-based organizations are actually responsible for the majority of HIV and AIDS care worldwide. In the Philippines the Catholic Bishops have produced two insightful pastoral letters the most recent being “Who is my neighbor?” published in July 2011. The Church is at the frontline of the battle against AIDS, helping and supported by many NGO’s alongside government efforts to combat this deadly disease. It may thus be unfair and even a sign of ignorance or prejudice to claim that she has not been of much help.

How about the Church’s opposition to condoms? Well, she does not support the widespread distribution of condoms because there is no evidence that this strategy is effective at a population wide level. None other than Edward Green, the former Director of the prestigious AIDS Prevention Research Project at Harvard University wrote that scientific studies in “the Lancet, Science and BMJ (British Medical Journal) have confirmed that condoms have not worked as a primary intervention in the population-wide epidemics of Africa.” This can be explained by inconsistent condom use and by the phenomenon of “risk compensation” whereby an individual who thinks he is protected actually takes more risks as explained by Fr Michael Czerny, S.J., Director of the African Jesuit AIDS network. He noted that “greater availability and use of condoms is consistently associated with higher (not lower) HIV infection rates, perhaps because when one uses a risk reduction ‘technology’ such as condoms, one often loses the benefit (reduction in risk) because people take greater chances than they would without the technology” (Thinking Faith, Online Journal of the British Jesuits, March 25, 2009).

The “Overlooked Epidemic” editorial surprisingly overlooks the group most at risk of HIV, the so called MSM group, men who have sex with other men. The MSM group are responsible for around 80% of the new cases of HIV. It is unclear if this glaring omission is due to insufficient research and ignorance or a failure to present the medical data clearly from a misplaced political correctness. If we want to target the epidemic we need to target the most at risk groups otherwise we are in danger of overlooking their real needs. The USAID report from 2001 clearly stated that “the Church is not a hindrance to the high risk groups which is where the rise in HIV is happening. The prevailing mode of transmission of HIV is men having sex with men. Those men probably do not have hesitations about condoms because of their Catholic faith.” The evidence shows that it would be thus ludicrous and rather short sighted to blame the spread of HIV in the MSM group on the Church seeing as this group does not even adhere to her teaching in this area. The Catholic Church correctly teaches that an active homosexual lifestyle is a dangerous one and the medical and scientific data supports this stance.

Those who blandly promote condom use as a magic panacea for the MSM group are doing our brothers a great disservice and an injustice. Instead we should be working to encourage a chaste lifestyle especially in the MSM group, and educate those involved in these risky and illicit sexual activities that they are putting their physical and moral well-being and that of many others at grave risk. In this regard, the voice of the Church should be listened to and not be simply disregarded or overlooked.

This is the best way to truly love our neighbours, to tend to them, like the Good Samaritan who did not overlook the suffering and predicament of his wounded brother, but instead lent himself wholeheartedly in a mission and ministry of compassionate care and healing. May Jesus, our Good Samaritan, always guide us in our care for those most in need and give us strength and courage never to overlook the truth. (Fr James McTavish, FMVD, MD, FRCSEd, MA (Bioethics), STL)

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