Almost 20 years ago, ACT UP stormed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City in protest of the Catholic Church’s stand against AIDS education, homosexuality, condom distribution, and abortion. Five thousand protestors chained themselves to pews, laid in aisles, and even crumbled communion wafers in defiance of the Church and their response to the AIDS crisis that was sweeping the nation.
“The protest was to send a message to the Catholic hierarchy to remember one thing: the separation of church and state,” said Michael Petrelis, a member of ACT UP, an AIDS activist group, who participated in the protest.
Meanwhile, at the Catholic St. Vincent’s Hospital, a few miles from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, members of the Catholic Church that the protestors so actively ridiculed, sat at the bedsides of suffering AIDS patients, holding their hands, and extending their compassion and support.
“We were on the front lines of serving those people,” said Vice President for Public Affairs of St. Vincent’s, Michael Fagan.
Many people have criticized the Catholic Church for its stance on sex education, AIDS prevention, and homosexuality since the beginning of the AIDS crisis, yet the Catholic Church has provided AIDS victims with overwhelming support and care. It has been estimated that more than 25% of all AIDS services in the world are delivered by the Catholic Church and its related organizations according to the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on Health Care.
“Since the early 1980s, the church has been in the forefront of the response to this pandemic,” said Monsignor Robert Vitillo, Special Advisor on HIV/AIDS for Caritas Internationalis. “It cannot do otherwise because its very mission insists that the church respond to human crises and emergencies and accompany those who are most poor and vulnerable.”
But as they were administering to the sick and dying, the Vatican charged homosexuals with the spreading of AIDS, banned safe sex education and condom use. They also tried to influence public officials to not support condom use, which is an effective method to stop the spread of AIDS. This only fueled tensions between gays and the church.
“At the level of the institutional church, we’ve seen a lot of unhelpful words and actions,” said Jeff Stone, Director of Media Relations for DignityUSA, an organization for gay and lesbian Catholics. “Our homosexuality is a gift from God too.”
Although the church fought sex education, they continued to work on behalf of the afflicted, many of them gay men. The church established the National Catholic AIDS Network to care for not only AIDS patients, but for their families and loved ones that were having difficulty coping with the stress and hardship of caring for someone with the disease.
“At that time, the church said if anybody needs us, these are the people that need us,” said Sister Patricia Talone, Vice President for Mission Services at the Catholic Health Association of the United States, who has been involved with the fight against AIDS since the 1980s. “We provided spiritual sustenance and support for caretakers and AIDS victims.”
Talone quickly got involved with the National Catholic AIDS Network by serving on their board of directors. She had an interest in medicine and wanted to eliminate the ignorance people had towards the disease in the 1980s. Talone was also driven by two of her brothers who died from AIDS, and she saw this as a motivating factor with other activists as well.
“Every person on the board had known or ministered to someone that died of AIDS,” Talone said.
However it is difficult to be seen as helping people you criticize, activist say. While the Catholic Church does not condemn homosexuality, it does state that homosexual actions are sinful. The church believes that sex is intended for procreation only and therefore it does not condone homosexuality or same sex marriage and does not support condom use even for heterosexuals. The Catholic Church’s belief that abstinence is the only way to prevent HIV/AIDS.
“First the Catholic Church needs to be more accepting of gay and lesbians and understand HIV prevention means condoms,” said Petrelis about his views on the church.
Marissa Valeri, Outreach and Advocacy Manager of Catholics for Choice, explained that their organization encourages Catholics to use condoms because abstinence is not always a possibility.
“Some religious leaders have said, ‘How can we expose people to something that might kill them?’” said Valeri in reference to bishops and cardinals who have supported condom use.
Their Condoms4Life campaign developed the tagline, “Abstinence Has a High Failure Rate,” in order to promote condom use which saves lives.
In the 1980s, Petrelis and other members of ACT UP fought against the church when it tried to push its beliefs about condom use onto others.
“The church opposed condom distribution in public schools,” he said fervently. “The problem with that is that the church doesn’t run public schools.”
However, Talone stands firmly behind the church’s policy on abstinence and educating youth on sexual responsibility.
“I think to simply hand out condoms to young people and let them think they’re safe is not even adequate informed consent because a large percentage of condoms fail,” she said. “It’s not an issue of birth control, it’s an issue that it’s not going to guarantee that people won’t get HIV.”
As a former teacher, Talone believes that Catholic schools are making an attempt to teach youth about AIDS and how the disease is spread, in addition to trying to dispel myths about the virus.
Despite the tension over condom use between the church and its critics, the church’s fight against AIDS continues today. Catholic Charities USA has 1,600 agencies across the country that provide specific services to AIDS patients, including housing and mental health support. They work with patients on a case by case basis which allows them to provide help in the form of money and medication.
“Our network works with agencies like food pantries and homeless shelters to try to meet people where they are and provide help in any way we can,” said Jane Stenson, the Senior Director of Poverty Reduction Strategies for Catholic Charities USA.
St. Vincent’s Hospital is just one of the many Catholic run hospitals that provide vast treatment and care to AIDS patients. Today, it is the largest designated HIV Center in New York State and treats more than 4,600 people a year, in addition to boasting an AIDS education and prevention program.
“It is based in our mission to treat anyone regardless of their condition,” Fagan said.
While the Catholic Church has provided immense support to AIDS victims in the United States, a large part of the church’s efforts is abroad in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
“In many parts of the world, only the Catholic Church and other faith-based organizations reach people in more rural or isolated areas of their respective countries,” Vitillo said.
Although medical progress has been made with AIDS, members of the Catholic Church feel that it is still a major issue that deserves our nation and world’s attention.
“Regrettably, I believe that for many years in the future, this problem will continue to cause tragic loss and human suffering,” said Vitillo. “I think the Catholic Church needs to re-double its efforts to prevent the further spread of the disease.”