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The Catholic Moment: On being pro-life

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

By Father Earl Fernandes

To be pro-life is to think of others. Thinking of others, rather than thinking just of one’s self, is a first step in growing toward moral maturity. In December, Pope Benedict XVI’s interview with journalist Peter Seewald was published as Light of the World: the Pope, the Church and Signs of the Times (Ignatius Press, 2010). The whole interview was overshadowed by the media’s obsession (and distortion) of the pope’s comments regarding AIDS and condom use. The Catholic Telegraph covered the story, prompting letters to the editor. Is the church really pro-life when it comes to fighting AIDS? Were the pontiff’s remarks really pro-life? What does it mean to be pro-life?

Is the church really pro-life when it comes to fighting AIDS? The answer is yes. While the church is blamed for many deaths due to AIDS because of its teaching on contraception, in reality it daily proclaims the Gospel of Life in its care of those suffering with AIDS. Approximately one in four of the 33 million afflicted with AIDS is cared for by the Catholic Church, including almost half of the total treatment efforts in Africa, where two-thirds of those afflicted with AIDS live. Catholic healthcare facilities are often the places where anti-retroviral drugs are given. In addition to caring for those infected by HIV, the church runs a vast network of schools and orphanages to care for those affected by AIDS.  The schools and churches help form people in fundamental values, especially in the area of human sexuality. Condoms-only HIV-prevention strategies have never turned back a broad heterosexual epidemic. Successful reduction of HIV among high risk groups (homosexuals, prostitutes, intravenous drug users) has never been reproduced in the general population using such strategies. Condoms-only approaches to HIV prevention do not address the “pathology of the Spirit.”

What makes a difference, as in a country like Uganda, with a high Catholic population, where HIV prevalence is low, is formation in values. The Church is pro-life, because she forms people in these values. Thus, in Light of the World, Pope Benedict says, “This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.”

What did the pope mean when he said, in the very next line, “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way to recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.”?
Was he intending to change church teaching on contraception? The answer is no. Elsewhere in Light of the World, he affirms the norms of Humanae Vitae, 14, on birth regulation; there are two inseparable meanings, a unitive and procreative meaning, to every marital act.

Was he suggesting that a person could choose the lesser evil? The answer is also no. He did not say this. The example he gave referred to the case of prostitution, which is always gravely evil, immoral and to be shunned. If, however, an HIV-positive prostitute seeks to diminish the risk of infecting others by condom use, such a person in his thinking shows awareness, even in a wrongful action, that the lives of others matter. Such a person is no longer thinking only of himself and his pleasure. This “thinking of others” is the first step in the path to moral conversion.

When we start thinking of others and reject selfish actions, we begin to be pro-life. This is true of the pregnant mother who thinks of the other: the child in her womb. This is true of married couples discerning having a child; a husband or wife does not act arbitrarily but first thinks of the other as spouse, as potential mother or father, as co-creator with God. When children care for an aging or dying parent, they think not of themselves, but of another. That is what the pontiff is getting at: thinking of others leads on the path of conversion from death to life. To be pro-life is to think of others, made in God’s image and likeness.

Father Fernandes is an assistant professor of moral theology and dean of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary.

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