Of morals and medicine


In the midst of Stephen Lewis lauding Bill Clinton praising Bill Gates congratulating Bill Clinton paying tribute to Stephen Lewis, it’s hard to know what to make of the AIDS mega-conference now in Toronto.

With 24,000 delegates, it is part festival, part pep rally, part political convention, part celebratory fundraiser, and part scientific seminar — which is all for the good to the extent it encourages those suffering from AIDS and for those working heroically to care for them.

A pleasant surprise at this conference is that the anti-Catholicism that usually accompanies such events has been held more or less in check. Today Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic, Archbishop of Toronto, is celebrating a special Mass for Catholic delegates to the conference. It’s a low-key affair, not widely publicized, because at the last AIDS gathering in Thailand two years ago, there were protests and disruptions of a similar Mass.

Which is odd, because the Catholic Church is the global leader in caring for AIDS patients. When the Vatican’s top health-care official, Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, addressed the UN General Assembly in June, he reported that over 25% of all centres worldwide that treat people with AIDS are Catholic or Catholic-supported. Without Catholic institutions, millions of AIDS patients would simply be left to die alone and often in squalor.

Catholics have been on the AIDS front lines long before it became a celebrity-attracting cause. Mother Teresa opened her first home for AIDS patients in New York on Christmas Eve 1985. I had the privilege of celebrating Mass at another of her homes in Washington, D.C., where AIDS patients have been cared for since the 1980s. No celebrities present, but the good Sisters treat the diseased body and comfort the tormented soul.

“If you oppose the distribution of condoms, something is more important to you than saving lives,” as Melinda Gates put it in her keynote address.

One might say that if you refuse to discourage sexual licentiousness, you value something more than saving lives.

Everyone remembers the late Princess of Wales’ visit to the bedside of an AIDS patient in 1987 — an iconic moment in the de-stigmatizing of AIDS. Bill Clinton loves to tell the story in his AIDS talks. Few remember that the same year Pope John Paul II had a special meeting with AIDS patients in San Francisco, physically embracing them and telling them that “God loves you all, without distinction, without limit.” More attention was paid to the thousands of gay activists protesting outside the church.

The hostility of the AIDS community to the Catholic Church comes down largely to the question of condoms. It is an article of faith in the AIDS community that if only the Catholic Church would put its moral and practical support behind condoms, millions of lives would be saved.

The argument is risible on the face of it, as it is unlikely in the extreme that those who reject the Church’s teaching on chastity and marital fidelity somehow blanche from using condoms because of that same Catholic teaching. People may not use condoms in the brothels, but it’s not because the Catholic Church is against the condoms. We are, it should be remembered, against the brothels.

Virginity before marriage and fidelity during marriage is hardly a Catholic invention, even if today the Catholic Church is sometimes lonely in defending the ancient wisdom on sexual morality. And it remains the case, as with all sexually transmitted diseases, that nothing would deal a blow to the spread of AIDS as effectively as an outbreak of moral virtue. Yet the international AIDS community views talk of morality, abstinence and chastity as something altogether irrelevant, and perhaps dangerous.

“If you oppose the distribution of condoms, something is more important to you than saving lives,” as Melinda Gates put it in her keynote address.

One might say that if you refuse to discourage sexual licentiousness, you value something more than saving lives. Indeed, it is noteworthy that the Toronto AIDS conference is marking something of a shift in regard to prostitution — sorry, “sex work” — which is a ferocious cause of AIDS transmission.

“People involved in sex work are crucial allies in the fight to end AIDS,” said Mrs. Gates. “We should be reaching out to them, enlisting them in our efforts, helping them protect themselves from infection, and keeping them from passing the virus along to others. If politicians need a more sympathetic image to make the point, they should think about saving the life of a faithful mother of four children whose husband visits sex workers.”

The Catholic view is a little more ambitious than that. The campaign to make prostitutes safe for philandering husbands and their betrayed wives is animated by a rather a low estimation of the human possibility. Virtue always remains possible, and in the case of AIDS, is good medicine, too.

That AIDS is a scourge that deserves aggressive treatment and preventative measures is not in doubt. Catholic teaching on morality and practical charity are powerful allies in the fight. Yet you would be hardpressed to know that from the goingson in Toronto this week.


Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Of morals and medicine." National Post, (Canada) August 17, 2006.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 2006 National Post

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