HIV/AIDS: How the Church cares

By Father John Fleming

The suggestion that the Vatican lacks the compassion of Jesus in dealing with persons living with HIV/AIDS, smugly sitting in judgment on those who may have contracted HIV/AIDS through behaviours the Catholic Church considers to be immoral, is a cruel and unjust caricature.

The Catholic Church is a global Church, well aware of the world's extraordinary diversity of cultures, beliefs, and on-the-ground life situations.

If the world were a simpler place the debate on a global strategy to deal with HIV/AIDS would also, no doubt, be simple. In such a homogeneous world no doubt social, religious, and cultural conditions and practices would not vary much from place to place. In that sort of world the risk groups and the solutions would be universal and clearly defined.

Whether "enlightened Western liberals" like it or not, the world is just not like that. Media critics of the approach taken by the Vatican and by Islamic countries such as our near neighbour Malaysia seek to impose on a diverse world a homogeneous world view which is not even universally accepted within their own countries.

The World Health organisation estimates that seven out of ten persons newly infected with AIDS come from sub-Saharan Africa. More than 80% of all deaths from the disease since the beginning of the epidemic in the late 1970s come from this continent.

Commercial sex workers, migrant workers and truck drivers are regarded by many as the agents of HIV transmission responsible for spreading the virus from urban to rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa. Unlike rich western countries such as Australia, a reliable and safe blood supply is still out of reach for untold millions, so that between 5% and 10% of HIV infections worldwide are transmitted through blood transfusions.

The point is that the HIV/AIDS profile varies markedly from place to place. The Australian model of predominant transmission among male homosexuals and intravenous drug users is not reflected in other parts of the world where the vast majority of HIV infection is to be found.

The Catholic Church and the Islamic nations were reflecting on the difficulties involved in framing a document that truly represented a global picture, and the difficulties posed when a western nation such as a Australia seeks to view the global HIV/AIDS crisis through a narrow lens.

The Catholic Church continues to offer practical care for those persons living with HIV/AIDS and for the orphaned children of parents who have died of AIDS.

Pope John Paul II has said that "those suffering from HIV/AIDS must be provided with full care and shown full respect, given every possible moral and spiritual assistance, and indeed treated in a way worthy of Christ himself".

In response to the Holy Father's appeal 12% of those providing care to HIV/AIDS patients worldwide are agencies of the Catholic Church, and 13% are Catholic non-governmental organisations.

That is, the Catholic Church is carrying out a staggering 25% of the total care given to HIV/AIDS victims, which makes the Church the major supporter of nations in the fight against this disease.

The Catholic Church has made a major moral and practical commitment to people living with HIV/AIDS. The Church is not only sensitive to legitimate global cultural and ethnic diversity, and to the various profiles of HIV/AIDS transmission around the world. It also works hard to help the victims of this disease in a compassionate and non-judgemental way.

Originally published in The Advertiser. Father Fleming is Director of the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute