Besides Lake Victoria in Tanzania and in the mountainous country of Burundi, Pope John Paul II told large crowds of his ten-day African trip in early September, that AIDS is a moral issue which calls for changes in human behaviour. His message was bound to exasperate those who consider that the AIDS epidemic must be countered with contraception and ‘safe-sex.’

AIDS is not solely a medical problem, the Pope insists: it has moral implications and it is directly linked to the transmission (or prevention) of life.

He also stressed that the Church has a duty to assist AIDS sufferers, not only with health care but with compassion and spiritual assistance. “These people often tend to close themselves in an anguished silence,” he said. “They need a fraternal presence to give them the courage to accept their condition.”

Life and love

“Burundi society, like many other societies in the world, is exposed to a serious danger.  I am thinking of the widespread AIDS pandemic which is afflicting a growing number of your citizens, especially young adults and also, it is painful to note, small children. This elicits your pastoral solicitude for everyone and leads you to deepen your reflection on the origins and consequences of this evil.

I have had occasion to address this topic, notably last autumn in Rome during a congress organized to examine the various aspects of the problem. I want to recall that the gravity of the disease does not only depend on the suffering and deaths which are its inexorable toll, but also on its implications of an anthropological and moral nature. This epidemic differs from so man others that humanity has experienced in that deliberate human behaviour plays a role in spreading the disease.

While the evolution in attitudes has tended to obscure the reality imposed by death, whose place nonetheless in every person’s destiny cannot be denied, the threat of AIDS now confronts our generations with the end of earthy life in a manner which is all the more overwhelming because it is linked, directly or indirectly, to the transmission of life and love. One stresses that the vital potentialities for life are in danger of becoming potentialities for death.

We must therefore understand what this disease reveals. Besides the biomedical problem, what I have called “a sort of immuno-deficiency in existential values” emerges. Providing information of the risks of infection and organizing preventive measures strictly from a medical point of view would not be worthy of the human person unless one called on him to rediscover the requirements of emotional maturity and an ordered sexuality.

In the face of AIDS, the pastoral work of the church is confronted with a complex of challenges. To inform, to educate, without agreeing that the problem may be treated or understood outside the realm of ethics because then the origins of this illness could not be understood or combated.

It is also our duty to help people with AIDS. I know how difficult treatment can be in the conditions of poverty in which you live. I hope, and I renew my request that help will not be restrained in this field where Catholics collaborate usefully with institutions and people who are devoted to the same health care tasks.

But I am thinking at the same time of the psychological and spiritual help which should not be absent, either for the sick during the acute phase or for carriers of the virus.

It is all part of the difficult problem of the meaning of suffering and the value of all life, even when it is damaged or weakened. May the Disciples of Christ crucified stand with love at the foot of the Cross which is borne by these poor, with whom our Saviour also wanted to identify.

We hope the day is drawing near when this scourge will be eliminated. But as we face our current ordeal, let us be the living witnesses of God’s merciful love. Let us be the bearers of hope, in the faith of Christ who gave his life for the salvation of all.

(John Paul II, to the Bishops of Burundi, September 5. The full text can be found in Osservatore Romano, September 10, 1990; and in Origins, NCCB, Washington, Vol. 20, NR 5, September 20, 1990).