Aids and the News Media

ARCHBISHOP CHARLES CHAPUT

The recent series on Priests and AIDS in the Kansas City Star used highly misleading statistics to promote an anti-Catholic agenda.

Many of you awoke January 30 to read the first installment in a three-part newspaper series entitled “AIDS in the Priesthood.” The stories, engineered by a Kansas City newspaper and featured prominently in Colorado’s two largest daily papers, claimed that priests are dying from AIDS at four times the rate of the rest of our population.

That is shocking news. It’s almost certainly false news as well.

The claim was based on results from an anonymous survey mailed to 3,000 of the priests in the United States and returned by 801. Professional researchers have since dismissed the survey, and the statistical comparisons drawn from it, as biased and generally useless.

One has to wonder if the paper really cared about the accuracy of its statistics, however, because this was not a story about AIDS. It was a story about sex. More specifically, it was a creative way to campaign against Catholic teachings on homosexual behavior, and also priestly celibacy. By elevating examples of sin among priests, it apparently sought to shame the Church into changing her teaching, or at least to expose Catholic doctrine as hypocritical.

A QUESTIONABLE AGENDA

If you weren’t reading with a critical eye, this agenda may not have been immediately apparent. The writer did a good job of weaving together anecdotal evidence and questionable statistics, all of which gave the impression that priests are contracting HIV at a devastating rate.

At times, though, the underlying motivation of the series was transparent. For example, consider the following statements:

“Many priests and behavioral experts argue that the church’s adherence to 12th century doctrine about the virtues of celibacy and its teaching on homosexuality have contributed to the spread of AIDS within the clergy.”

“Experts say that until the church starts encouraging a more healthy understanding of sexuality, priests will continue to die of AIDS.”

I do not know to which priests and “experts” the reporter was referring. But if there are people out there who believe the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality is somehow “unhealthy,” they owe it to themselves to take a closer look. In truth, there is no healthier understanding of sexuality, from both spiritual and physical perspectives. Which is why, when sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage—faithful, loving, lifetime commitment between one man and one woman—a the sexual transmission of disease becomes much less likely.

But what of priests and the promise of celibacy? The articles suggest that most priests are either breaking their promise of celibacy or suffering severe psycho-sexual consequences. Those who know priests can tell you this is nonsense.

CELIBACY IS A WONDERFUL GIFT

Celibacy is a wonderful gift when it is received freely and embraced personally by the priest. So often the discussion around celibacy is reduced to what is lost, rather than what is received. Sacrificing physical sexual expression in imitation of Jesus is fulfilling in unexpected ways. It helps the priest to stay focused in prayer and service to others, and it underscores his radical and total availability to God’s people.

In a culture so addicted to sexual activity, many people cannot accept celibacy as a possibility. After all, if one trusts prime-time television, just about everybody is engaging in some sort of illicit sex, or at least thinking out loud about it. But this is a lie. There are many single people living chaste lives. Each of these people demonstrates that we are not helpless victims of our sexual desires.

A final point on celibacy: the series’ portrayal of seminarians as naive and sexually underdeveloped was silly. The men at Denver’s St. John Vianney Theological Seminary have been raised in the same culture as the rest of us. They know about sexual attraction, they know about sacrifice, and they know how HIV is transmitted.

COMPASSION AND UNDERSTANDING

AIDS is a serious problem in our society. It deserves serious attention. In the Archdiocese of Denver, we have an active HIV/AIDS ministry available to any individual or parish needing assistance or resources. We celebrate an annual memorial Mass for victims of AIDS and their families and friends. Since 1989, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity have lovingly cared for HIV/AIDS patients at Seton House, located at 1840 Grant St. The nonprofit hospice cares for up to 15 men and women at a time—for free. The Church, here and globally, has been anything but silent on the issues presented by AIDS.

Still, as with the rest of society, the Church and the priesthood have not been immune to the disease. While most priests are faithful to their promise of celibacy, some priests have sinned. Some priests have contracted AIDS. Some priests have died from AIDS. They deserve the same love and compassion we extend to all our brothers and sisters who struggle with this disease.

Catholics have a right to be upset with the newspaper that generated the story and also with the local papers which inappropriately chose to print it. I certainly encourage Catholics in northern Colorado to write the Denver Post and the Denver Rocky Mountain News to let them know how you feel. But when the furor subsides, AIDS will still exist. Please join me in praying for a cure to this terrible disease and for all those who are touched by it.

Let’s also pray for a day when the Catholic attitude toward human sexuality is properly understood as beautiful, healthy and life-giving.

For an objective statistical analysis of the Kansas City Star’s survey of priests, see Bad News on Priests and AIDS - Media Watch.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. “Aids and the News Media.” Denver Catholic Register (Feb. 16, 2000)

Published with permission of the Denver Catholic Register.

THE AUTHOR

Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the archbishop of Denver. He is the author of Living the Catholic Faith: Rediscovering the Basics.

Copyright © 2000 Denver Catholic Register


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