Stopping the Spread of HIV/AIDS Through Abstinence (and Catholic Doctrine)

Steven Mosher
PRI Weekly Briefing
10 May 2004 Vol. 6 / No. 19
Reproduced with Permission

The Catholic Church has played a major role in containing the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa. Without its message of sexual abstinence before marriage and fidelity in marriage, the epidemic would have been arguably worse, not only among believers but among the general population.

But the Church no longer stands alone. Its position "that abstinence and fidelity are key to stopping the spread of the epidemic" is now beginning to receive support from a wide variety of sources. The World Health Organization (WHO) is now promoting what it calls 'partner reduction' and 'long-term monogamous relationships.' (Faithfulness and marriage, for you ordinary folks, words that apparently still make WHO's sexperts choke.) The scientific community is now producing evidence-based studies, from places like Uganda, showing how abstinence and fidelity have dramatically reduced HIV rates.

Even the U.S. Congress, no bastion of innocence, is beginning to recover its common sense where this disease, in part sexually spread, is concerned. Note that the legislation that authorized the 'President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief' (PEPFAR) calls for culturally appropriate HIV/AIDS prevention efforts aimed at delaying sexual debut, abstinence, fidelity and monogamy, reduction of casual sexual partnering, reducing sexual violence and coercion, including child marriage, widow inheritance, and polygamy, and, where appropriate, use of condoms.

With the exception of condoms (about which more later) the Catholic Church has been in the forefront in each and every one of these critical areas. It has encouraged such physically (and morally) healthy practices as abstinence and fidelity, while speaking out against such physically (and morally) unhealthy practices as casual sex, sexual violence, and polygamy.

Even on the issue of condoms, where the Church has taken such a beating, the tide is now turning. The reason for this is the overwhelming evidence of condom failure. Not one country that relied upon condoms to check the pandemic has successfully reduced the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate. Not one. Instead, those countries with the highest condom availability rate also have the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate. After 20 years of throwing condoms at the problem - and millions of deaths - it's past time to try another approach.

How does the Church promote abstinence and fidelity? In various ways. The need for young people to remain abstinent until marriage, and for married couples to practice monogamy, is already a staple feature of sermons given during daily and weekly Masses, of the religious instruction of young people, and of the instruction given engaged couples.

There is no more culturally appropriate channel for the instruction of believers than the Catholic Church, which is already seen as the chief authority where matters pertaining to marriage and the family are concerned. Believers marry in the Church, and have their children baptized there. The Church has many opportunities to stimulate community discourse on healthy sexual norms. Nor is there any better way of ensuring parental involvement than the Catholic Church, since the fundamental act which defines believers attendance at Mass is nearly always a family affair.

Finally, we wish to note that the Church in Africa is now, and has been for some decades, indigenous. Nearly all dioceses are led by Africans rather than missionaries. The clergy, from the bishop and priests down to the deacons and extraordinary eucharistic ministers, are fully enculturated members of the local population, with all of the sensitivities to socio-political setting and cultural context that this implies.

Instead of continuing to throw condoms at the problem of HIV/AIDS - arguably making it worse - why not racket up this existing, highly successful program? Why not help the Church spread its lifesaving message of abstinence and fidelity throughout Africa? Why not help the church to mobilize opinion against attitudes and behaviors that increase vulnerability to HIV, including multiple casual partners, polygamy, and cross-generational sex?

Not too long ago, an informal alliance between a Polish Pope and an American President helped to bring down the Berlin Wall and end communism in Europe. It's time for a new alliance between the Catholic Church and the Bush Administration, one that can end the scourge of AIDS in Africa.

The African Church has the answer to the AIDS epidemic. The U.S. has the means to empower it. It is a match made in heaven.