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Category: International Date: 10 Mar 96


So French Bishops have openly defied the Pope and decided that Catholics may use condoms to fend off the deadly disease aids. And this is just months before the Pope’s planned visit to France.  Published by the French episcopate, a report called La Societe En Question says, while the Catholic Church generally advocated a different kind of solution, fidelity in love, it acknowledges that condoms have “partly” slowed down the spread of AIDS in France and that they may be “necessary” in that context.

 

The bishops call on “fears to be exorcised” and for “everything to be done to overcome the isolation of AIDS sufferers.” This move was startling to say the least, after so many years of official silence (which rang loud with the implication that AIDS is God’s punishment for deviant behaviour). It comes on the heels of criticism of the episcopate as a “silent” body, made up of “submissive and fearful officials”, and about the constant talk of a widening rift between the Church and society.

 

Hopefully the move sent a signal to religious institutions worldwide, that it is time the Church takes an active role in providing succour and practical help to people afflicted by the AIDS scourge. And the issue hits closer to home than we realise. After Central Africa, the region most affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic is the Caribbean. As in Central and South America, an increasing number of heterosexuals - men and women - are contracting the disease.

 

San Fernando 1990

A young man is thought by his employers to be HIV positive. Unaware of his legal rights, he is afraid to say anything because he needs the job to pay his rent. He is probed and finally admits to carrying the disease. He is fired. He falls ill, cannot afford treatment and is admitted to San Fernando General Hospital. He responds to treatment and is discharged, but his family constantly find excuses not to take him home despite reassurances that he will not infect anyone. Eventually he dies in the hospital, afraid and hurt. (Godfrey Sealey. Contributor to The 3rd Epidemic: Repercussions of the Fear of AIDS. Published by the Panos Institute.)

 

AIDS is a silent killer because, as Godfrey Sealey writes, in a country of mauvais langue, the sufferer is simultaneously isolated and an immediate victim of gossip. We live in a society where the rawest of sexual innuendos are a part of daily life, where calypsonians all but bid us to fornicate in public at Carnival, and we all but oblige. A country where sex before, in, out and around marriage is accepted as the machismo subculture. That’s all right, and as far as I’m concerned adults have a right to exercise their sexuality.

 

But then we refuse to analyse our sexuality. With prim faces we are mortified by homosexuality, deeming it as “deviant” without attempting to understand it. This leaves us still more ignorant of AIDS, and how it is contracted. We find homosexuality accepted only when it is presented as the macabre, as comic relief in our increasingly mindless and slapstick theatre. We ignore the facts before us which say repeatedly, AIDS is no longer a homosexual disease. It has struck and is striking daily; school girls and heterosexual men, married women and infants. We are afflicted with hypocrisy and overwhelmingly lacking in humanity to people dying of AIDS or those diagnosed as HIV positive.

 

The bishops who sit on the French episcopate’s social commission, who have bravely risked going on a collision course with Rome, represent a growing number of the clergy that recognise that if it is to continue to act as a propagator of humanitarian values (at least one hopes that is its aim) it has to keep in touch with the changing needs of the times.  I believe (or perhaps I have to) that the bishops of France are a symptom of a movement that has begun worldwide. In the midst of the false piety, pomp and threat of brimstone and hellfire, a cadre of religious leaders from all religions have emerged. I have seen them coming from every denomination here in Trinidad. They are our new hope.

 

Even in the Vatican, the seat of tradition and dogma, there is hope. The French scientist who discovered the AIDS virus, Professor Luc Montagnier, gave a talk at the Vatican two years ago because he was concerned about the negative attitude of the religious authorities to the use of condoms as a means of AIDS prevention. He was warmly applauded. Naturally he was surprised.

“I subsequently learned that the audience consisted of representatives of religious congregations working on the ground. I then realised the applause meant that I had said out loud what many of them thought themselves but could not expose.”

 

And while I was writing this I met Father Kevin (who I had known as a teenager in Tobago) at a wedding. I quizzed him between speeches and dessert. I instantly felt that he was a man who even the staunchest atheist could not help but respect. What do you feel about the French Bishops? He replies, “I believe that the highest ideals should be held up to everyone, in restraint, in sex, in the sanctity of marriage.” But I persisted, what if these ideals didn’t touch people - weren’t made relevant. “Then,” he said, “they will have to use condoms to protect themselves from AIDS,” adding, “but remember, above all I believe in restraint.” Thus he serves his God and man.

 

Then, emboldened by his mild manner and intelligent eyes, I asked him, “Do you think the church has failed young people. He replied, “The institution is made up of people who are not perfect, who fail from time to time. The solution lies in working with, and understanding the people in your parish.” And we leave him doing just that.

 

It would be naive to end this by saying the common fund of humanity runs deep and we should trust it. The real proof of this lies in homes and hospitals around this country. And if people afflicted with AIDS - homosexual and heterosexual men, women and children, are dying alone, “afraid and hurt,” then know that the next time you look at a scandalised person, or someone who pretends AIDS doesn’t exist or is the fault of homosexuals, you are staring hypocrisy in the face.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur