Bishops Tolerate Teaching 'Safe Sex'

Posted: December 11, 1987

WASHINGTON — Acknowledging that some people do not adhere to church teachings on sexuality, U.S. Roman Catholic bishops yesterday said they would tolerate educational programs that describe how condoms may prevent the spread of AIDS.

However, "we are not promoting the use of prophylactics," the church leaders stressed in a statement on AIDS. The church considers condoms unacceptable as a form of birth control.

In a statement that was prepared over nine months, the U.S. Catholic Conference also urged compassion for AIDS sufferers. The bishops denounced the violence against gay men and lesbians that has escalated since AIDS became a national issue. They called on medical workers, funeral directors and landlords to avoid discrimination against AIDS victims.

The Rev. Thomas Gallagher, an adviser to the bishops who was involved in the drafting of the document, "The Many Faces of AIDS: A Gospel Response," was quoted in the New York Times today as saying that the statement in no way changed the bishops' opposition to artificial birth control.

Discussing the reference to condoms, Gallager was quoted as saying: "We are saying that we don't like this idea at all, but we know that ignorance about this matter could cause death. Our position is a toleration of a lesser evil to prevent a greater evil."

In the 30-page document, the bishops restated the longstanding church stance that "human sexuality . . . is to be genitally expressed only in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship of lasting fidelity in marriage."

Therefore, they said, "we opposed the approach to AIDS prevention often popularly called 'safe sex.' This avenue compromises human sexuality - making it 'safe' to be promiscuous - and . . . quite misleading."

However, they acknowledged, "we live in a pluralistic society" and some people "will not agree with our understanding of human sexuality."

"We recognize that public educational programs addressed to a wide audience will reflect the fact that some people will not act as they can and should; that they will not refrain from the type of sexual or drug abuse behavior which can transmit AIDS," the statement said.

"In such situations," it said, "educational efforts . . . could include accurate information about prophylactic devices or other practices proposed by some medical experts as potential means of preventing AIDS.

"We are not promoting the use of prophylactics, but merely providing information that is part of the factual picture."

Mary Hunt, a theologian who is co-director of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual in Silver Spring, Md., called the statement a positive first step.

"The very fact of their addressing AIDS is significant," she said. "I applaud the fact that the bishops have realized that AIDS is a major medical crisis in our time."

But she said she considers "their view of human sexuality to be woefully inadequate to explain the variety of sexual lives of faithful Catholics."

The bishops began their statement, which is to be distributed nationwide, by calling AIDS an "ominous presence" that poses serious moral questions.

Among them are, "How are we to relate to those who have been exposed to the virus or those who have the disease? What are our responsibilities as members of the church and society with regard to their care and support?"

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