Over time, Latin American church leaders change response to HIV, AIDS

MEXICO CITY – The Catholic Church in Latin America is changing its approach to the continuing epidemic of HIV and AIDS, and many are welcoming the changes.

“While moral double standards and stigma remain strong elements of the response to HIV and AIDS in many evangelical and Protestant churches, I’ve recently seen an enthusiastic willingness to deal openly with the epidemic from Catholic leaders,” said Dr. Eduardo Campana, an Ecuadorean who heads an AIDS program for the Latin American Council of Methodist Churches.

“It’s somewhat surprising given their opposition to some forms of prevention, and I don’t know if the interest comes from on high or from the grass roots, but it’s helping to foster a broader response to HIV and AIDS and the factors that contribute to it,” he told Catholic News Service.

For example, he said, the Mexican bishops’ conference released a groundbreaking pastoral letter during an international gathering of AIDS researchers and activists in August in Mexico City. The bishops urged people to work together to fight discrimination against those with AIDS and to avoid judging them.

“The Mexican bishops have done a wonderful job of combating stigma and discrimination,” said U.S. Monsignor Robert J. Vitillo, who serves as the special adviser on HIV and AIDS to Caritas Internationalis, an umbrella group of Catholic aid agencies. “Their educational materials have won marketing awards. … And they’ve done a good job of linking the epidemic to changing patterns of migration and to the poverty which makes people vulnerable to HIV.”

Jesuit Father Hernan Quezada, a physician who advises a regional network of Caritas organizations on AIDS, said the church is wrestling with the fruits of its initial approach, which at times contributed to stigmatizing those living with the disease.

“At the beginning of the epidemic, we had an unfortunate discourse, and so people have seen us as disinterested or as an obstacle to responding to the crisis,” he told CNS. “There were a lot of negative experiences, and that has created a kind of reverse stigmatization against the church. Today we’re struggling to show our many positive experiences. We’re trying to destigmatize ourselves so we can work more with governments and civil society groups.”

He said that ideological approaches to discussing the disease “never move the discussion forward.” He said change occurs when people learn what it is to live with HIV and AIDS.

“In Mexico, when the bishops got to personally know people affected by the epidemic, they became committed and open to further work,” said the priest, who has served as an adviser to the Mexican bishops’ conference. “When they sat and broke bread with HIV-positive people, when they realized they are Catholics who love and need their church, then the bishops began to change and extended their hand.”

But Maria Guadalupe Orozco, coordinator of the Jesuit-founded Center of Integral Attention to HIV/AIDS, a program providing care in Guadalajara, Mexico, said troubling attitudes are not limited to the past.

“There’s still a sense from many in the church that people deserve their disease. I haven’t heard it much from the bishops, but many priests and laity will say people need to be loved ‘despite what they did to themselves,’ which just replicates the stigma, the sense that the disease is some sort of divine punishment they deserve,” she told CNS.

Conchita Reyes, director of health ministries for the Guatemalan Diocese of Coban, told CNS that the seeming indifference of many pastoral agents to AIDS issues stems not from discrimination, but rather from being so busy with other things.

“Many priests are busy focusing on sacramental activities. Others are so focused on one theme, whether it’s land or indigenous struggles, that they can’t focus on other issues as well,” she said.

Reyes said the church is trying to make people pay attention by launching a nationwide awareness campaign with the theme “Solidarity Is Transmitted With a Smile, HIV Is Not.”

“We’re doing a lot of radio spots, which end by telling people that if they want more information they should consult their local parishes. When people heard that, they started going to the parishes, and some priests got mad at us because they didn’t know what to do. That opened the door for us to begin talking with them about changing the church’s approach,” she said.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.