Tuesday, May 02, 2006

When ideology met reality: the Catholic Church on condoms and AIDS

Catholic Online has a sensitive and thoughtful piece on the Catholic Church's position on condom use and the AIDS epidemic in Africa. It is striking that Catholics who live or work in countries with a high AIDS mortality rate seem to be more likely to try to reconcile condom use with Christ's teachings, while those far removed from the horrors (often comfortably tucked away in Europe or America) are more comfortable with a principled stand on the absolute unacceptability of using prophylactics. Conclusion of the piece, written by Dr. Marcella Alsan (a physician in the Hiatt Global Health Equity Residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston) is worth quoting in full:

If men did not stray, if women had rights, if AIDS did not kill, perhaps the church’s strict ban on condom use would be morally defensible. But none of these conditions applies in Africa today. As a consequence, the cost of the church’s inflexibility may mean not only untold human suffering, but the loss of millions of innocent lives.

Perhaps there is also a general lesson to be drawn. The HIV epidemic not just fail to obey traditional Catholic teaching: it does not obey anybody's cherished ideology. It does not obey liberal sexual ideology, and its reluctance to embrace partner reduction and fidelity, either. Contrary to the views of earlier moralizers, HIV turned out not to be the monopoly of sinners in the form of gay men and injection drug users. Contrary to those opposed to male circumcision in principle, the circumcision may well have a protective effect against HIV such that it could be unethical not use it in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Contrary to those who think traditional healers are 'backwards' and part of the problem of HIV transmission, they may well turn out to part of the solution. And contrary to those who think the right approach to the epidemic must exclusively be secular and medical, faith-based approaches to HIV/AIDS education can sometimes make a difference where it counts: reduction in new infections.

The epidemic has killed millions of persons and left scores of dead ideological positions in its wake. The Catholic position on condom use just may be the next.

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