Today is World AIDS Day, a worldwide commemoration since 1988 to mourn the dead and raise awareness about the living. Issues around HIV/AIDS have been challenging in the Catholic Church, which has both contributed to homophobia and forstalled necessary prevention practices, as well as provided lifesaving healthcare globally, often to underserved communities.
Into this tension, Pope Francis offered remarks about World AIDS Day during his weekly audience yesterday. His remarks may signal a shift in tone, if not substance, as he said:
“Millions of persons are living with this disease, and only half of them have access to life-saving therapies. I invite you to pray for them and for their loved ones and to promote solidarity, because even the poorest can benefit from diagnosis and appropriate care. Finally, I call upon all to adopt responsible behavior to prevent further spread of this disease.”
When I first read his words, I was frustrated that Pope Francis, who has keen pastoral sensibilities, would use a term like”responsible behavior” which often just covers for prejudice. But reading the paragraph again, I noticed that what was absent was any specific judgments about people or condemnations of condom use, so frequent during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. One could reduce the pope’s words to sexual morality, but such a reading does not seem consistent with the rest of Francis’ papacy.
Rather, like much of his teaching, Pope Francis is not prescribing moral actions. He is outlining contours for conscience formation and moral discernment; fundamentally, he is treating people as mature moral agents. “Responsible behavior,” then, is not a coded dig against same-gender intimacy, but a universal principle to be applied in a person’s context based on their decision in conscience. Francis is urging every person — including church leaders, pastoral ministers, government officials, healthcare providers, and both homosexual and heterosexual partners — to exhibit “responsible behavior”in the context of their lives when it comes to preventing HIV transmission.
Such an interpretation seems plausible when read through Pope Francis’ February comments where he expressed an openness to condom use as a means of preventing transmission of the Zika virus, calling contraceptive use the “lesser of two evils” at the time.” I would note, too, that Francis received Bishop Jacques Gaillot at the Vatican last year. Gaillot was removed from his French diocese in 1995 for, among other things, promoting condom use and blessing the relationship of two gay men, one of whom was nearing death from AIDS.
If I am correct, this shift is very significant in at least two ways for how the church engages HIV/AIDS going forward.
First, Pope Francis, returning to an earlier tradition, wants church ministers to be guides for and companions to mature Christians negotiating their daily lives. Where church ministers have overreached and sought to replace consciences with their own rules, to paraphrase Francis, a harm has been committed. As a church, we should acknowledge that we have wronged LGBT people and people living with HIV/AIDS by depriving them of their moral agency to decide and enact what “responsible behavior” means for their lives.
Second, Pope Francis’ comments focus our attentions foremost on the daily realities of those people living with and suffering from HIV/AIDS. Responding to their pain with a love that respects them as moral agents (rather than scrutinizing the cause of infection) is Francis’ main, if not only, concern.
As of 2015, 36 million people have died of AIDS–and there are 36 million people currently living with HIV, only 46% of whom receive antiretroviral treatments. The question today is not how to beat HIV/AIDS, but how to effectively implement the successful prevention and treatment programs by defeating social obstacles to their existence and dissemination.
For many years, the church has been at the forefront of HIV/AIDS work through its healthcare, social service, education, and development efforts. A 2015 report from the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care estimated that the Catholic Church cared for more than 25% of the global population living with HIV/AIDS, active in some 116 countries. Imagine the benefits for this work already underway that could come from affirming people as moral agents to be accompanied by the church, but whose decisions must ultimately be respected.
For instance, in the Philippines, a highly Catholic nation, the HIV rate is spiking with an estimated 26 new cases each day. An editorial from the Philippine Daily Inquirer notes new infections are mainly in younger men who have sex with men, and blames both a lack of “age-appropriate sex education” and the bishops’ opposition to condom use as reasons for this new demographic shift . But what if bishops in the Philippines and elsewhere made a clear statement in support of people being respected as moral agents who should receive both comprehensive sex education and the resources to practice safer sex, if they so choose? That would be a powerful re-orientation that could save lives precisely by being more faithful to the Catholic moral tradition.
Finally, a World AIDS Day event in England makes concrete these ideas proposed by Pope Francis. The Farm Street Jesuit Church in London, which hosts the LGBT Catholics Westminster community, has been displaying a portion of the AIDS Quilt through December 5 to commemorate those who have died. The church is holding a special Mass today, celebrated by Monsignor Keith Barltrop, tasked by London’s Cardinal Vincent Nichols with LGBTQI outreach. Barltrop himself has advocated for respecting people as moral agents, saying last year that the church should support transgender people who decide to transition. These events for World AIDS Day exhibit the very solidarity called for by Pope Francis.
Let us all join Pope Francis in praying for people who are living with or have died from HIV/AIDS, for their loved ones and their caregivers, and for every person to exercise “responsible behavior” in curtailing the harm this infection has and continues to cause.
For Bondings 2.0’s full coverage of HIV/AIDS as it relates to the Catholic Church, please click here.