Catholic theologians call for a radical change of heart on HIV prevention

By staff writers
November 3, 2009

Two prominent Catholic theologians have strongly criticised attitudes influencing the church hierarchy over its stance on measures to prevent the spread of HIV-AIDS.

The Irish Times reports that Enda McDonagh and James Keenan, who are both Catholic priests, have pointed out that the HIV pandemic is currently responsible for an annual scale of death equivalent to ten times the loss of life in the Asian tsunami of December 2004.

Their comments are addressed to “those with the political, economic, moral and religious power” - but will be interpreted particularly in relation to the obdurate stand of the Vatican on issues like artificial contraception.

Across the developing world, priests and religious including some bishops, have recently been speaking out on the issue. But so far Rome has been unmoved.

The theologians said that those in power must undergo “a moral conversion of dearly held but now unfounded and unethical positions in regard to condoms, needle exchange and other means of (HIV) prevention”.

Fr McDonagh, former professor of moral theology at St Patrick’s College Maynooth, and Fr Keenan, founder professor of theology at Boston College, make their comments in a pamphlet published by Progressio.

Maynooth has historically been the theological school for many of the major leaders of Irish Catholicism and has an international reputation.

Boston is a Catholic bastion in the USA, as well as a centre of theological thought and reflection.

The booklet, 'Instability, Structural Violence and Vulnerability: A Christian Response to the HIV Epidemic' is available through

It argues that “corporate vulnerability to the pandemic will require the fundamental step of putting people – and suffering people above all – before profits. This would require the drug companies to forego their usual exorbitant profits.”

These companies “in their greed” are “not only assisting in the further dehumanising of the infected and their carers, but dehumanising themselves”.

McDonagh and Keenan say that instead of supporting public health HIV preventative strategies such as condoms, needle exchange and preventive education, some leaders seem to want to keep vulnerable and most-at-risk people away from the “general population” and those seen as protecting orthodox social mores from "contamination".

This strategy is “often backed by a deep moral judgmentalism”, says the booklet. Studies on the HIV pandemic expose “a church leadership which stands aloof, righteous, and judgmental”.

The authors says studies also show that religious beliefs “strongly influence the way people think about HIV and AIDs”.

For instance, “a significant percentage of those surveyed” believed “HIV was a punishment from God” - a view from which McDonagh and Keenan strongly dissent on theological, spiritual and moral grounds.

Judgmentalism “depends powerfully on the capacity to blame”, they say. It assumes that sufferers do not merit “the sympathetic, supportive, humanitarian response that other catastrophes prompt”.

“Although HIV causes the same number of deaths every 37 days [as the 2004 Asian tsunami in which 300,000 people died], the will to commit concomitant resources to prevent such loss of life simply does not exist,” they write.

A deeper understanding of the biblical tradition of life versus death is needed in the light of the HIV-AIDS crisis, say the two prominent Catholic theologians.

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