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McCarrick Issues Call to Arms on AIDS


Washington area Roman Catholics were urged yesterday by their spiritual leader to develop a “culture of solidarity” with HIV/AIDS patients and to address the “crisis of values” that facilitates the spread of the disease.

In a pastoral letter, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the archbishop of the Washington Archdiocese, also said that Catholics should “affirm the right to healthcare for every person,” promote “the availability of early testing” for the disease, and press the federal government to address the global HIV/AIDS “catastrophe” by eliminating poverty and making affordable medicine available to all afflicted with the disease.

At the same time that he called for “a more loving and compassionate response to the reality of HIV/AIDS,” McCarrick questioned the effectiveness of condoms in combating its spread, and that aspect of the letter drew criticism from liberal Catholics.

The pastoral letter, whose title “The Fullness of Life” evokes St. John’s reference to having “life to the full,” reaffirmed the church’s teaching that condom use is wrong and that sexual relations are licit only within marriage.

But the letter, a common way for bishops to give spiritual guidance to Catholics, also advocated that nations work to eliminate factors that contribute to HIV infection, including “sexual violence and exploitation of women, stigma . . . deterioration of the family unit, war . . . international debt and unjust political, social and economic structures.”

“The focus of the archdiocesan efforts has been on pastoral care for people living with AIDS,” McCarrick spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said. “The cardinal thought, ‘That’s nice, but we have to do more as an archdiocese on this.’ ”

Gibbs said the letter lays the groundwork for future initiatives that likely will include more parish-based ministries for those sick with the virus and an increased availability of testing for it in Catholic hospitals and service agencies.

McCarrick noted that in 2001, the rate of AIDS cases reported in the District “was more than ten times the national rate on a per capita basis” and that Maryland “ranked second among all states in the rate of reported AIDS cases” and that Prince George’s County “has the second-largest number of AIDS cases in the state.” Abroad, the situation “has reached apocalyptic proportions” with nearly 30 million cases of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.

Reaction to the letter was generally positive. “I think it’s a beautiful, beautiful call for action, very compassionate and very wise,” said Connie Neuman, an editor at the Washington-based Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association. “Sometimes we look only at our own back yard and don’t look abroad where conditions can be even worse.”

Some Catholics took issue with the letter’s assertion that policies advocating “safe sex” through condom use “are not solutions, but myths.” It added that “condoms too often fail in preventing the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV . . . while giving their users a false sense of security.” Moreover, McCarrick wrote, condom use “contradicts our faith’s understanding of sexual union as an expression of spousal love” in marriage.

“I think it is factually incorrect to say . . . that condoms often fail,” said Frances Kissling, president of the liberal group Catholics for a Free Choice. “Condoms do not often fail. They sometimes fail. . . . It is one thing to say that the institutional church is opposed to condoms because they violate the sexual teachings of the church. It’s another to give incorrect medical information.”

Rea Howarth, coordinator of Catholics Speak Out, said “it’s really disappointing” that McCarrick disparaged condom use despite studies showing their effectiveness “when used properly and consistently.”

Kissling, however, said she found “much to recommend” in McCarrick’s letter, noting his stress on the need for both treatment and prevention, and his call for “pharmaceutical companies to work together . . . so [that] urgently needed drugs may be available at affordable prices.”

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry in Mount Rainer, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian Catholics, called the letter “an important contribution to the moral response to the epidemic.”

He said he was “very happy that there was no mention of linking HIV to homosexuality, which is an accurate reflection of the current demographics of people affected. It’s no longer affecting primarily the gay community.”

This article originally appeared in the 23 May 2003 edition of the Washington Post.

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