Human dignity guides Church's AIDS work in Philippines and worldwide

Msgr. Robert Vitillo. Credit: Caritas.
Msgr. Robert Vitillo. Credit: Caritas.

.- The alarming spread of HIV in the Philippines must be addressed with an approach that puts human dignity and responsibility first, a top Church adviser on the AIDS epidemic told CNA.

“In the Philippines, as in all countries of the world, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has focused on the dignity of the human person and on the responsibility that such dignity entails in caring for oneself and all other persons,” Monsignor Robert Vitillo said in a July 27 interview.

Portrayed by critics as a set of “conservative” taboos, the Church's ethical teachings actually offer the only authentic solution to the epidemic in a country where infection rates have dramatically risen, Caritas Internationalis' special adviser on HIV and AIDS said.

“The teaching of the Catholic Church with regard to sexual activity is relevant and valid for all persons,” he said. “This teaching should be received and understood in the context of responsible personal relationships and not simply as a public health instruction for one or other population group.”

“I have no doubt about the wisdom of Catholic Church teaching in this regard,” the monsignor stressed, noting that these principles “have been confirmed by public health evidence” in several countries.

Msgr. Vitillo's comments came on the last day of the July 22-27 XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., during which he spoke July 25 about progress on a global effort to stop mother-to-child HIV transmission during the next three years.

During the global conference, the Church came under fire from critics for its approach to AIDS in the heavily Catholic Philippines, where the United Nations Development Program says HIV infections have increased by 25 percent since 2001.

According to the UN, 87 percent of these new infections are due to homosexual activity. Critics want the Church to help make this behavior “safer,” and to do the same for activities such as drug use and prostitution.

“Catholics For Choice” adviser Magdalena Lopez, who also spoke at the International AIDS Conference, alleged in a July 24 editorial that the Church “inhibits AIDS work” in the Philippines.

The country, she said, is “in desperate need” of a law to promote condoms and “reproductive health,” while the Church opposes such a bill.

In her column for the Silicon Valley Mercury News, Lopez said the Philippines bishops should support the “unique needs” of groups such as “men who have sex with men, intravenous drug users, sex workers, (and) sailors,” rather than discouraging their behaviors and rejecting efforts to facilitate them.  

In his July 26 article “Gay sex fuels HIV rise in Catholic Philippines,” AFP reporter Jason Gutierrez cited activist Ana Santos' belief that “religious edicts” were influencing society “so that sexually active people often did not buy condoms or contraceptives because of shame.”

Msgr. Vitillo told CNA/EWTN News that this kind of “false allegation” against the Church's AIDS strategy stemmed from a “mechanistic” focus on managing inherently harmful behaviors, to the neglect of human dignity and true responsibility.

In countries such as Kenya, Uganda, and Thailand, there is “strong evidence” that infection levels dropped “due to adoption of more responsible behavior” including sexual abstinence outside marriage, fidelity within marriage, and avoidance of drug use.

The Church's approach, the priest said, is not sectarian or judgmental, but realistic in the highest sense. By contrast, supposedly “value neutral” prevention strategies are often driven by highly questionable assumptions about human nature and morality.

“Few approaches can be seen as 'value neutral,'” Caritas' adviser observed, pointing out that many approaches presented as such are really based on notions of “seeking pleasure without accepting any responsibility for one’s actions,” or making “consent” into society's only moral standard.

“The Church promotes risk avoidance, rather than mere risk reduction,” Msgr. Vitillo said. “It calls for responsibility in interpersonal relationships.”

“While such responsibility often calls for sacrifice, it also opens up those called to marriage to much deeper and comprehensive fulfillment rather then restricting them to momentary physical pleasures that often result in the manipulation or 'use' of one or other sexual partner.”

Since the early 1990s, Caritas Internationalis' special adviser has facilitated several training workshops on HIV and AIDS prevention and care in the Philippines. He will return to the country later this year to hold additional training sessions at the request of the country's bishops.

Caritas designated the AIDS epidemic as a “priority area” for its work in 1987. Since then, it has worked to stay on the cutting edge of scientific and medical research, while bringing a faith-based perspective to bear in preventing discrimination against those infected with HIV.

“In most parts of the world,” Msgr. Vitillo recalled, “the Church was among the first organizations to promote a compassionate and non-discriminatory response to HIV,” taking in many seriously ill patients who “were rejected even by their own families.”

More recently, the Church has responded with vigilance to the spread of AIDS in Eastern Europe, with Caritas and other Catholic groups providing counseling, HIV testing, medications, home care, and social support.

This approach, the Caritas adviser said, is accompanied by spiritual support as well as “assistance to change the drug-taking and sexual behaviors that put people at risk of HIV infection.”

There, as in the Philippines and around the world, the Church works “in keeping with the age-old values that date back to the teaching handed on by Jesus Christ Himself,” centering its AIDS prevention message “within the gift and vocation of marriage to which many people are called.”

This approach, Msgr. Vitillo said, is rooted in true compassion and realism, based on “a sense of the dignity that God grants to each one of us and of the responsibility He expects from us.”

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