What Vatican II tells us about Aids
Recently some epidemiologists (scholars who track the origins and growth of diseases) have suggested that the first possible recorded case of someone dying from Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome (Aids) dates back to 1959 in what was then the Belgian Congo.
No one then knew what this strange “tropical disease” was. Only with the rapid growth of air travel in the 1970s and the spread of Aids that followed was it identified as such. No one at Vatican II had heard of Aids—and yet the Council is relevant to our subject today.
The reason why the Church involves itself in the Aids crisis can be found in the famous opening lines of the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes. It is worth quoting in full:
“The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially those who are poor and afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in our hearts. For theirs is a community composed of people, of people who, united in Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, press onwards towards the kingdom of the Father and are bearers of a message of salvation intended for all.
“That is why Christians cherish a feeling of deep solidarity with the human race and its history” (1).
Since the beginning the Church has cared for others, not only fellow Christians, but all people. Historian-sociologist Rodney Stark has suggested that it was precisely this openness to the Other that made the Church grow in the first centuries.
Throughout our history, the Church has been deeply involved in health care through the involvement of religious congregations (many but not all of them women) and priests, many of whom during the middle ages combined pastoral care with medicine.
In more recent centuries lay people have worked alongside clergy and religious in Church-based health care, particularly as medical missionaries across the globe. In its various documents, on laity, on mission and on the religious life, the Council reaffirmed this aspect of mission as one of the traditional corporal works of mercy.
Care for persons with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Aids continues this great tradition of the Church’s mission and pastoral outreach. Inspired by a compassion that mirrors Christ’s compassion for all humanity, Catholics have been deeply involved in hospital and hospice care, in anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment and in research into finding a cure for HIV/Aids.
In many countries, particularly in Africa (including South Africa), Catholic hospitals run increasingly by laity have been at the forefront of the struggle against Aids. This is a sign of the renewed lay vocation, called for by the Council and responded to with great generosity, as much as a result of the decline of religious vocations.
Inevitably this response has come with some controversy. Since HIV/Aids is very often sexually transmitted, it has posed moral dilemmas for the Church with which many of us are still struggling. One of the effective ways in which HIV transmission can be reduced is by the proper use of condoms, which are artificial contraceptives that the Church rejects as immoral in the 1968 document Humanae Vitae.
The Church’s alternatives—abstention from sex outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage—is undoubtedly more effective than condom usage, which (depending on their quality and proper use) are less than 100% “safe”.
Yet some moral theologians have noted that not all people are able, through force of economic and social circumstances, to freely abstain. While the official Church teaching remains generally opposed to condoms, such ethicists have argued that in some circumstances they may be permitted based on classical Catholic moral ideas of double effect and the lesser evil.
Many, too, have appealed to the principle of conscience, affirmed at Vatican II (and to be discussed in a later article in this series).
The condom controversy should not, however, be overstressed at the cost of the fundamental principle at work in Catholic response to HIV/Aids: solidarity. Solidarity and the accompaniment of those who are suffering, is central to the new openness to the world proclaimed at Vatican II and expressed in our ongoing commitment to people with Aids.