Offending seemingly everyone and everything is not easy. Still, the creators of “South Park” managed that feat in their 2004 movie “Team America: World Police.”
The movie includes a scene depicting a Broadway production, “Lease,” a parody of the critically acclaimed, award-winning musical “Rent.” The parody riffs on life under the shadow of AIDS —
Well I’m gonna march on Washington
Lead the fight and charge the brigades
There’s a hero inside of all of us
I’ll make them see everyone has AIDS . . .
Everyone has AIDS!
My grandma and my dog ’ol blue (AIDS AIDS AIDS)
The pope has got it and so do you (AIDS AIDS AIDS AIDS AIDS)
And so “Lease” offers its unsubtle observation that “Rent” may have gone overboard in depicting the extent of the AIDS crisis. Critics charge that the extent of the crisis cannot be overstated and that the Catholic Church has failed to do enough.
Answering the charge that the Catholic Church is “heartless in its pursuit of principles over care of the sick and dying,” Austen Ivereigh provides Catholics with a way to find their voice in a society that increasingly criticizes the views of the Church and its adherents.
Ivereigh tackles AIDS and other issues in his book, How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice: Civil Responses to Catholic Hot-Button Issues. Among other nettlesome topics, he covers the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the challenges facing Catholics worldwide.
The Church’s approach to handling the epidemic, particularly in Africa, presents intractable difficulties and generates headlines such as “Pope Tells Africa: ‘Condoms wrong.’”
The Church’s message competes with some evidence that condom usage by high-risk populations in the United States and Western Europe has successfully reduced infection rates. Yet, to critics’ dismay, the Church has continued to promote behavior change as the solution to the African AIDS epidemic, to the exclusion of condom usage.
Last month, the International HIV/AIDS conference met in DC. The Conference billed itself as the “premier gathering for those working in the field of HIV, as well as policy makers, persons living with HIV and other individuals committed to ending the pandemic.”
The conference sought to offer the opportunity to “assess where we are, evaluate recent scientific developments and lessons learnt, and collectively chart a course forward.”
With a burning desire to help hurting people at the margins of society, Catholics may take this chance to ask themselves what lessons the Church has learned about HIV/AIDS and what course forward the Church may chart.
From the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic, in the 1980’s, the Church served as a first responder to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. “Catholic and Protestant churches had been running exemplary AIDS programs in Africa since the 1980’s,” Ivereigh says, quoting Helen Epstein’s The Invisible Cure.
The people make up the Church. So when the people of Africa have AIDS, Ivereigh argues, the Catholic Church itself has AIDS.
Critics blame the Church for not advocating condom use to combat the spread of AIDS. This “wrongly assumes that condoms are the key to combating AIDS in Africa,” says Ivereigh.
Instead, the Church uses a different approach by seeking to promote responsible sexual behavior, including a call to chastity and fidelity.
More important, the Church has been working tirelessly to overcome the stigma of AIDS and poverty.
Ivereigh counsels Catholics seeking to put the Church’s case in the public square to recognize the positive intention behind the criticism. Critics argue that, in the interest of saving lives, the Church “should be willing to accept condom use, even at the risk of condoning adultery, fornication, incest, and other abuses, or apparently violating Church teaching against artificial contraception.”
Underlying this critique, Ivereigh suggests, is a concern that “Christians should recognize from the Gospels.”
The way forward for the Church, according to Ivereigh, is to continue “assisting people in avoiding infection, providing tests to find out if people are infected and offering physical and spiritual care to those who are.” The Church can continue “working in communities to combat stigmatization and discrimination; caring for those affects (especially widows and orphans) helping those infected to ‘live positively’; and advocating on behalf of persons living with HIV and AIDS.”
Through its experience, the Church has shown that programs focusing on behavioral change are more effective than those merely promoting condom usage. In Uganda in the 1990’s, HIV infection rates declined from 21% to 9.8%, mostly because of a change in sexual behavior, including a “reduction in non-regular sexual partners and an associated contraction of sexual networks” that form a superhighway for infection.
Another lesson learned: Comments from bishops and the pope can ignite firestorms of controversy. Some Church leaders had mistakenly reported that condoms are “porous” and do not protect from disease.
When the pope spoke out against condoms in 2009, critics accused him of ignorantly opposing condoms because they were porous. Instead, the pope’s comments against condoms actually followed a concern that they are an ineffective strategy.
Catholics and the Church care deeply about an effective response to HIV/AIDS. This is because they live in communities ravaged by the disease, Ivereigh points out. The Church is on the front line of the effort to help prevent infection, help those infected lead good lives, and care for those made orphans and widows by the unforgiving disease.
The Catholic Church and those Catholics on the ground in highly affected areas like Africa should not be shunned from international discussions and efforts to respond to HIV/AIDS. Although their views are unpopular, they have decades of experience in the trenches, and they care for those left abandoned by the rest of the world.
“Learn to do right; seek justice,” the prophet Isaiah instructed the people of Israel, “Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” Today the pope and his bishops lead the way for Catholics to do the same.