Catholic AIDS workers: Pope echoing us on condoms
JOHANNESBURG–The three large blue and white boxes of condoms appeared to be the elephant in the room at the Catholic AIDS clinic, a trailer beside the church in a dusty red-soil settlement in the world’s most AIDS-riddled nation.
But parish priest Rev. Didier Lemaire showed no embarrassment when asked about the stash of 600 condoms, set conveniently on an examination couch so one could grab a few on the way out the door. Lemaire said Pope Benedict XVI’s groundbreaking statement about the selective use of condoms only cements what Catholic AIDS workers have said for years.
“What the pope is saying, many priests have been saying for a long time,”said Lemaire. He said eschewing condoms when people have AIDS goes against the commandment”Thou shalt not kill.”
Pope Benedict’s comments have far-reaching implications for Africa, the continent with the highest numbers of AIDS victims–and the fastest-growing number of Catholic converts. But it is more important because the Catholic Church is the biggest private provider of AIDS care in the world, providing antiretroviral treatment, home-care visits and counseling to one in four of the world’s 33.3 million AIDS patients, according to the Catholic charity Caritas International. In 2008, members of the Catholic HIV and AIDS network spent 180 million euros(about$235 million)on assistance, it said.
For many Catholics in the front lines watching people die of AIDS, Benedict’s pronouncement confers a belated blessing on what they are already doing. They hope Benedict’s comments are just a precursor to opening up further conversation.
“The people in the trenches have been allowing people to use condoms for 10 years now,”said Sr. Elaine Pearton at Lemaire’s Inkanyezi parish. She said Catholic AIDS workers did not want to lay down the moral law for patients who might not be Catholic, and that they were acting on church teaching that”your conscience is the highest authority.”
Pearton is among the Catholic religious and lay workers who were in the vanguard confronting AIDS in South Africa, where 5.7 million of about 50 million people are infected. Pearton said she advised condoms for couples, Catholic and otherwise, where one partner was infected with AIDS.
“We don’t hand them out[indiscriminately]for people to make balloons out of,”she said, laughing.”But if someone needs them to protect themselves from a deadly hazard, we just give them a box.”
Benedict was quoted in a book as saying that condom use by people such as male prostitutes showed they were moving toward a more responsible sexuality by aiming to protect their partners from a deadly infection. Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi elaborated last week after speaking to the pope that the same logic could be applied to women prostitutes.
Basically, the pope acknowledged that the church’s long-held stance against birth control does not justify putting lives at risk. His statement startled many Catholics and angered others. Some conservative Catholic theologians have said bluntly that they disagree with the pope, and that condoms still represent an immoral use of artificial birth control.
Among those punished by the church for their views on condom use is a German priest, the Rev. Stefan Hippler, whose”Hope”project in Cape Town hands out condoms to the HIV-positive. When Hippler last year started to care for HIV-positive priests and nuns, his diocese in Germany recalled him.
Hippler is prohibited from preaching but continues his AIDS work, now funded by the South African diocese and not the German Bishops’Conference.
The Southern African Catholic Bishops’Conference in a statement Wednesday reiterated its 2001 declaration, then rather revolutionary even though it omitted the dreaded”condom”word. The bishops said,”When one spouse is infected with HIV/AIDS they must listen to their consciences. They are the only ones who can choose the appropriate means, in order to defend themselves against the infection.”
Still, Catholic AIDS workers insisted that only abstinence and fidelity can provide a long-term solution to ending the AIDS pandemic. They said condoms should not be distributed indiscriminately, for fear they might promote promiscuity and worsen the crisis. The largest Catholic donor in the world, the U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services, has reiterated that it will not be distributing condoms.
Sr. Shelagh Mary Waspe, a nun and professional nurse, described why she gave condoms years ago to a shack-dweller:”She was riddled with AIDS, continually being raped at night in a little shack where she lived on her own. Those kind of situations, you just do it quietly, don’t make a big issue.”The woman died two months later.
For Waspe, condoms often are”a matter of self-defense”in a society like South Africa’s, where rape is common and sex is demanded in return for all kinds of favors.
“Lots of people are adamant about not even looking at condoms, not talking about condoms, not giving out a condom, but I think on the QT(quiet), lots of other people have been doing it,”Waspe said.
Among those who consider their lives were saved by Catholic nuns, count Elizabeth and Kobesi Mofokeng, an unemployed couple in their 40s who discovered they were sick with AIDS in 2004. They were tested and treated at the Inkanyezi clinic on the outskirts of Johannesburg.
The Mofokengs, Christian but not Catholic, got antiretroviral treatment a year before the government was handing it out, in a country where half those in need of the lifesaving drugs remain on a waiting list.
“This clinic and its caring workers have changed our lifestyle and saved our lives,”said Elizabeth Mofokeng.”We’ve changed our diet, we’re rigorous about taking our ARVs(anti-retrovirals)and, every time we have sex, we use condoms.”