In the Compassion of Jesus
A Pastoral Letter on AIDS
None of us lives for himself, and no one dies for oneself (Rom. 14:7-8). If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it… You are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it (1 Cor. 12:26-27).
Our dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ:
The words of St. Paul strongly remind us that we are responsible for one another. They reverberate in the declaration of Vatican II: “The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the peoples of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well” (On the Church in the Modern World, no. 1). More recently the words are echoed by the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines in its clarion call for solidarity (PCP-II Acts and Decrees, e.g. no. 295).
Today, the call for mutual caring and solidarity is more urgent than ever as we Filipinos face a threat of potentially more catastrophic proportions than volcanic eruptions, floods, and conflicts. The name of this threat — the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) — or HIV-AIDS for short.
The AIDS Situation: A Pandemic
First identified in 1981, the dread disease has swiftly spread in the space of less than ten years to every continent of the world. It is truly a pandemic, ravaging millions of lives, the lives of those infected, of their families and other loved ones as well. It cuts across all geographical and cultural boundaries, all classes and ages, although the young generations are particularly hit.
While statistics from 1984 to October, 1992 tell us that in the Philippines only 356 had been diagnosed as HIV infected, including 84 AIDS cases, health officials believe that the actual number is hidden behind fear of exposure and ostracism, stigma and shame.
AIDS is transmissible by exposure to HIV-infected blood through transfusions, administration of blood products, organ transplants from infected donors, use of unsterilized, HIV-contaminated needles and other equipment by drug users and in health care facilities. It can also be transmitted from an infected mother to her unborn child.
But the most common means of transmission is through promiscuous sexual behavior.
To date, no known vaccine or cure is available to combat the disease. Those who are infected with HIV will remain infected for life. Although they may live for many years without symptoms, they will eventually develop serious illnesses which will lead to death. The grim image of the Apocalypse comes almost inexorably to mind: “I looked, and there was a pale greeen horse. Its rider was named Death” (Rev. 6:8).
Moral Reflection and Response
It is clear that the situation demands the pastoral care of the Church. For the Church must continue the mission of Jesus. In announcing the Good News of salvation, in healing the sick, in forgiving sinners, in being compassionate with the multitudes, Jesus showed what the Church must do. God’s people must be at the side of those who suffer. Especially for the needy and the suffering of today, the Church must be the Compassion of Jesus.
Our ministry of compassion for the afflicted must overcome fears and prejudices. Jesus has shown us the way, through the manner in which he dealt with lepers, the ostracized and “untouchables” of his time. “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched the leper, and said to him, ‘I do will it. Be made clean” (Mk. 1:41).
For us, an encounter with people infected with HIV-AIDS should be a moment of grace–an opportunity for us to be Christ’s compassionate presence to them as well as to experience His presence in them.
1. Our first attitude must be to serve and minister. Those who contract HIV-AIDS, whether by accident or by consequence of their own actions, carry with them a heavy burden: social stigmatization, ostracism, and condemnation. Let us reach out to them, welcome them, serve them, as Jesus did the sick of his time. To attend to their pain is to attend to the whole Mystical Body, to attend to Christ Himself who is the Head. If there has been any moral responsibility, we must be ready to say, as Jesus to the sinner: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, from now on do not sin anymore” (Jn. 8:11).
2. To help stem the spread of this dread disease, we as a Church must collaborate with other social agencies in providing factual education about HIV-AIDS. So extensive is the popular ignorance about the disease as to encourage an irresponsible, cavalier and casual attitude to sexual relationships. And too many are the myths surrounding it as to prevent effective pastoral care for those afflicted.
3. Most of all, we need to recognize the moral dimension of the disease. Though medically the cause of the disease can be identified as a virus, our faith tells us that its cause and solution go beyond the physical.We cannot ignore the possibility that through this pandemic the loving Lord may be calling us, his children, to profound renewal and conversion: “for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges” (Heb. 12:6; cf. 1 Cor. 11:32; Prov. 3:11-12). HIV-AIDS and other calamities that visit us are not necessarily the punishment of a loving and forgiving God for our personal or collective sins. But we know that Nature itself has often its own unremitting laws of reward and retribution with regard to actions we take, freely or not.
4. The moral dimension of the problem of HIV-AIDS urges us to take a sharply negative view of the condom-distribution approach to the problem. We believe that this approach is simplistic and evasive. It leads to a false sense of complacency on the part of the State, creating an impression that an adequate solution has been arrived at. On the contrary, it simply evades and neglects the heart of the solution, namely, the formation of authentic sexual values.
5. Moreover, it seeks to escape the consequences of immoral behavior without intending to change the questionable behavior itself. The “safe-sex” proposal would be tantamount to condoning promiscuity and sexual permissiveness and to fostering indifference to the moral demand as long as negative social and pathological consequences can be avoided. Furthermore, given the trend of the government’s family planning program, we have a well-founded anxiety that the drive to promote the acceptability of condom use for the prevention of HIV-AIDS infection is part of the drive to promote the acceptability of condom use for the contraception. For the above reasons we strongly reprobate media advertisements that lure people with the idea of so-called safe-sex, through condom-use. As in contraception, so also in preventing HIV-AIDS infection condom use is not a failsafe approach.
6. We cannot emphasize enough the necessity of holding on to our moral beliefs regarding love and human sexuality and faithfully putting them into practice. All these, in order to prevent the spread of the disease and to provide the foundations for effective and compassionate pastoral care for those afflicted. Among these moral beliefs is the beauty, mystery and sacredness of God’s gift of human love. It reflects the very love of God, faithful, and life-giving. This marvelous gift is also a tremendous responsibility. For sexual love must be faithful, not promiscuous. It must be committed, open to life, life-long and not casual. This is why the full sexual expression of human love is reserved to husband and wife within marriage. Monogamous fidelity and chastity within marriage–these are ethical demands, flowing from human love as gift and responsibility for the married. As for all those who are not married, we will not cease enjoining fidelity to the same moral beliefs. Our secularistic era may scoff at them as old-fashioned. But modernity and its worldly values do not abolish the continuing validity of St. Paul’s words — “Your life is hidden with Christ in God… Put to death then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry” (Col. 3:3-5). When one lives by faith, as all followers of Christ must, one is convinced that chastity and the refusal to engage in extra-marital sexual activity are the best protection against HIV-AIDS. To our beloved Priests, Religious and other Faithful who have committed themselves to a life of celibacy, we say: You are a sign for others that chastity lived for the Kingdom of God and a well integrated and ordered sexualities are not only possible but are actually being lived.
7. In the face of the rapidly spreading scourge of HIV-AIDS, we cannot overstate the need for a profound moral renewal of our people. This was the call of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines for the transformation of our society (PCP-II Acts and Decrees, e.g. no. 32). This, too, is our call for the radical prevention of the HIV-AIDS disease. Nothing short of this can effectively respond to the deep-rooted moral cause of the problem. It is at depth a moral issue. We must not, therefore, forget the absolute imperative of moral renewal, while continuing to search for the medical solution.
We invite all persons of good will to be in solidarity with HIV-AIDS patients. They are our sisters and brothers. We see in their faces the suffering image of Jesus himself: What you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me (cf. Mt. 25:40).
As we minister to the afflicted, we proclaim to all the infinite compassion of God and the redeeming passion and death of Christ, the Savior of all.
May our Blessed Virgin Mary whom we invoke as Mother, “Health of the sick” and “Comfort of the afflicted” accompany us through this passion of modern times.
For and in the name of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines,
(Sgd.)+CARMELO D.F. MORELOS, D.D.
Bishop of Butuan
January 23, 1993
The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines
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