Charles L. Rulon
Emeritus, Life & Health Sciences
Long Beach City College
Medieval religious beliefs intensified the persecution of AIDS victims
Scientists have been working around the clock for decades to conquer AIDS, a tragic disease spread by a deadly virus that has already killed tens of millions of people. Like most crises, AIDS has brought out the best and the worst in human nature. Thousands of professional and voluntary care-givers have generously come forth to care for the sick. Fund raisers have generated millions to fight this disease. These are expressions of human compassion at its best.
But AIDS has also aroused mean-spirited responses due to the fact that the disease first struck already stigmatized populations: gay men, IV drug users and prostitutes. Attacks against gay men began to rise sharply in the late 70s, shortly after the epidemic hit. In 1986, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention announced that AIDS was God’s way of indicating His displeasure with the homosexual lifestyle. His view was widely supported across our nation in thousands of Christian churches and on hundreds of Christian television and radio stations to tens of millions of followers.
Over three decades later millions upon millions of Christians in the U.S. continue to believe that homosexual behavior is hated by God, that AIDS was brought by God as a punishment, and that those with AIDS must have deserved it for their “wicked lifestyle.” This is in spite of the fact that:
a. Monogamous gay men rarely got AIDS, unless they shot drugs.
b. Almost no lesbians were infected with the AIDS virus.
c. In Africa, Asia and South America, heterosexual populations were the hardest hit with AIDS.
d. Many heterosexuals in the U.S. acquired AIDS via blood transfusions from contaminated blood.
e. Tens of thousands of newborn babies got AIDS from their infected mothers.
This religious “wrath of God” explanation for AIDS has been used to explain deadly epidemics throughout history. Yet, would the elimination of any disease have been possible if this disease really were caused by an angry god? Kill the rats and fleas and the plague disappears. Eliminate the mosquito and malaria disappears. Sterilize the drinking water and cholera disappears. Vaccinate enough people and small pox is eradicated. If history is any guide, AIDS will also be eventually conquered. But it won’t be by Christians persecuting homosexuals, or by Muslims burying them alive.
In the meanwhile, those who believe that AIDS is God’s way of punishing homosexuals will not be donating money to fight this disease. Nor will they be helping those who are dying alone in some hospital, or on some street corner, shunned even by their “God fearing” relatives. Instead, their “wrath of God” beliefs and propaganda will actually help to spread AIDS. This is because young males who want sex from women will rarely reveal any past homosexual or IV drug usage. Neither will married gay men who are still in the closet to their wives. So the virus spreads to women and then to their fetuses during pregnancy.
In addition, the Christian Right with its non-stop efforts to elect conservative judges, legislators and school boards, plus its relentless error-filled propaganda and watchdog activities, has blocked many educational programs related to AIDS for the last three decades. They have kept homophobia alive, kept sex education out of the schools, and kept IV drug addicts from obtaining sterile needles.
The Catholic Church and AIDS
One of the biggest obstacles to AIDS education and to AIDS control programs over the last three decades has been the Roman Catholic Church—a church that ministers to the spiritual needs of roughly one-sixth of the entire world population!
In 1986 the first condom commercials finally began to appear on television. But it was not because the U.S. had the highest rate of unplanned teen pregnancies and one of the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases of all Western developed nations. No. Instead, it was finally in response to the deadly serious AIDS epidemic that broke out in the late 1070s. Even then the uproar, political pressure and threatened boycotts from the Christian Right, in particular the Roman Catholic Church, squashed most ads.
In 1989, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston even urged Catholic parents to pull their children out of public school AIDS classes because their discussions of sex and condoms were “amoral.” Just teach children to be good and to abstain, said the Archdiocese.
In 1995, Catholic officials in Brazil criticized the government’s new AIDS prevention campaign because it advocated the use of condoms to protect against the spread of AIDS. In 1996, even though Kenya had a very serious AIDS problem, Kenya’s top Catholic bishop publicly burned several boxes of condoms along with pamphlets promoting safe sex.
Catholic Church officials have declared that condoms offered no protection against AIDS. Some have even asserted that condoms actually caused AIDS by lulling people into believing they were protected. Health professionals continue to strongly disagree. Dr. James Prescott voiced his outrage back in 1987: “The willingness of the Roman Catholic church and moral fundamentalists to subordinate the prevention of the spread of a deadly disease that will take millions of lives to their ill-conceived religious beliefs of perceived evil in condom usage simply staggers one’s sense of moral consciousness.”[i] Almost 25 years later, little has changed.[ii]
Some closing thoughts
There is no question that much Catholic Church effort worldwide has been directed toward aiding the poor, the sick, the elderly and the handicapped, plus maintaining child care centers, and providing drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. Many kind and charitable programs are rooted in Catholic religious teachings. Also, many priests have been at the forefront of civil rights movements, campaigns for disarmament, struggles for economic equality and against capital punishment. Many priests have also been active in campaigns to save our planet from being environmentally trashed by greed and power struggles. Some have been killed for their efforts. That’s why it’s so unfortunate that the Catholic hierarchy has chosen to continue to vigorously oppose condoms in this age of AIDS, not to mention stem-cell research, all modern contraception, the morning-after pill, sterilization procedures, all abortions, in-vitro fertilization, and gay marriage.
When certain religious beliefs are being forced on others and result in the suffering of innocent people, these beliefs deserve to be investigated and exposed if necessary. Yet, when such harm is exposed, religious leaders often cry foul and accuse skeptics of blasphemy and religion bashing. However, history teaches us that religious belief systems, if not kept in check by ongoing skeptical inquiry, have the potential of developing authoritarian, Holy Crusade systems of moral absolutes and truths.
[i] Dr. James Prescott. “AIDS, Sexual Oppression and Violence,” The Humanist, July/Aug. 1987.
[ii] For a detailed coverage of the Roman Catholic’s position on condoms and AIDS, including the Church’s justification, see <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Church_and_AIDS>