Pope Francis sends message to Catholic Pre Conference on AIDS

Pope Francis sends message to Catholic Pre Conference on AIDS

Catholic AIDS Conference, July 2016

Sr Alison Munro

The Catholic Pre Conference ahead of the International AIDS Conference in Durban in July heard a message from Pope Francis, read by the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Peter Wells, encouraging “the Bishops of the region, and those assisting them, to continue facing the challenges associated with HIV&AIDS; in particular he hopes “that this Conference will focus on the vulnerable members of society; including single mothers, orphaned children, and indeed on unborn children who are ‘the most defenceless and innocent among us.’”

Dr Sheila Tlou, former minister of health of Botswana, now at UNAIDS (Southern and Eastern Africa Region), stressed that the world needs to close the gap re new infections if we are is to bring AIDS to an end by 2030. Otherwise we are “mopping the floor while the tap is running.” The region has been successful in bringing down the rate of new infections, and in reducing considerably the rates of mother to child transmission. But issues such as abuse of girls and forced sexual debut, and child marriage in some cultures must be addressed urgently given that “two thirds of new infections are among adolescent girls.”

In Asia, according to Dr Steve Kraus of UNAIDS (Asia Region), two thirds of new infections are among men. Much of the health care is provided by is by faith based organisations. There is need, in Asia and elsewhere, to reduce new infections in hard-to reach-populations, including men who have sex with men, prisoners, commercial sex workers and migrants. “Today’s best advice,” he said “is to start treatment if you are HIV+.” Recently the Minister of Health in South Africa announced that South Africa’s “test and treat” programme will be launched in September in a plan to scale up the numbers of people on treatment (currently about 3,4 million out of a total of 7 million with HIV infection.) One of the main advantages of the programme is that treatment acts as a form of prevention of transmission of HIV.

Msgr Robert Vitillo of Caritas Internationalis, reported on the High Level Meeting at the United Nations in June, and the contribution made through the Holy See and Caritas Internationalis regarding the work and experience of Church agencies region in the response to children. While new infections among infants have decreased there are still challenges across the world re child mortality, tuberculosis, access to anti-retroviral drugs, stigma, late initiation on treatment, effective drugs for children, neuro -cognitive impairment and stunting, and stock outs of testing supplies. Bio-medical services are not enough, and the faith community is called to greater commitment in addressing the psycho-social needs of families, providing services at community level, assuring access to treatment, and promoting advocacy and partnerships.

“Testing and treatment without pastoral care will not succeed,” said Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg. The Church has a role to play in advocating for treatment and in facing the challenges regarding hard to reach populations. “We must engage in partnerships with government, helping to deliver holistic care.” Reminding delegates that “God is always merciful and compassionate, ” he said that central to the Church response is the call to overcome stigma and discrimination. In his reflection on addressing stigma and discrimination, Bishop Frank de Gouveia, Diocese of Oudtshoorn, said, “ In the Year of Mercy we are called to repentance and a sense of solidarity, to examine our pastoral attitudes and the quality of our ministry to others.” We need, he urged delegates, “to meet people where they are, not where we want them to be since accompaniment comes before moral teaching.” Jenny Boyce-Hlongwa of the Diocese of Mariannhill shared her story and the challenges of being on anti-retroviral treatment. She doesn’t want young people to be infected and tells her story for the sake of others. For her the sacraments and the knowledge of God’s mercy are powerful. We need, she said, “to make use of the religious health assets we have in our parishes, human and financial.”

Dr Nontando Hadebe of St Augustine College, presenting a paper on Catholic Social Teaching and AIDS made the point that Catholic Social Teaching engages with the context in which we find ourselves. “Liturgy is meaningless if there is no action for justice. In the AIDS crisis, we are given a framework, and we speak life with our faith. Social Teaching gives us the principles for reflection, the criteria for judgement and directions for action.” Some of its principles, preference for the poor, dignity, subsidiarity, dignity of work, family life are particularly pertinent. We are challenged to learn, she said, from the experts (UNAIDS, medical science), to judge (theologically) and to act (pastorally and theologically). “In our time the integration of human rights, and of gender is important, and the discourses about what is ‘African’ and ‘un-African’ need to happen since our lives are framed in culture. We have no option except solidarity since all people are in the image of God.”

“AIDS is a social issue, a theological issue, an individual issue,” said Fr Anthony Egan. We are human beings “with autonomy, with a sense of self, with a sense of responsibility and a duty to respond. We as human beings are affected by the world around us. We must decide how we act ethically, how we make moral judgements, how we see the context, how and why we should act.” We can’t say ‘the bible says…’ We have to focus on the grace of God, not on sin. We need to be interpreting rules, making a judgement on how we act. Earlier he had highlighted that stigma is a moral dilemma, a challenge in all religions and cultures.

Catholic delegates attended one joint session with delegates to the Inter-Faith Pre Conference (Super-Fast Track for early diagnosis and treatment of children and adolescents living with HIV) and heard Dr Luis Loures of UNAIDS stress that science won’t do it alone. “The community approach works faster and better.”  But, “we need to break the silence.” Deborah Birx, head of PEPFAR highlighted the important role of Faith Based Organisations in protecting children.

Seventy five delegates participated in the Catholic Pre Conference. It was jointly organised by Caritas Internationalis, Catholic HIV and AIDS Network, the SACBC AIDS Office, CATHCA, and Cabrini Ministries. Delegates attended from Europe, the USA, Australia, and several countries in Africa, and from South Africa. Some of them also attended the International AIDS Conference the following week.