U.S. Roman Catholic bishops, in a wide-ranging policy statement released yesterday on AIDS, gave qualified support to public education programs that include information about condoms.
"We are not promoting the use of prophylactics, but merely providing information that is part of the factual picture," the statement said.
The carefully worded concession marks the first time the nation's bishops have given any sanction, however qualified, to a sexual practice that departs from the church's ban on artificial birth control. Studies show that the ban is ignored by the vast majority of Catholics.
The 7,700-word policy statement, nine months in the drafting, calls for extensive public education to slow the spread of the fatal disease. "Because we live in a pluralistic society," the bishops said in explaining their unprecedented concession, such programs will "reflect the fact that some people will not act as they can and should; they will not refrain from the type of sexual or drug abuse behavior which can transmit AIDS."
AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, destroys the body's immune system, is fatal and is transmitted in blood products, through sexual contact or shared hypodermic needles.
Programs that include information about condoms, the statement said, "should indicate that abstinence outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage as well as the avoidance of intravenous drug abuses are the only morally correct and medically sure ways to prevent the spread of AIDS."
The statement calls for AIDS education programs "at every appropriate level" in Catholic schools and colleges, beginning in the fifth or sixth grade.
Throughout the document, the bishops, "as participants in the public life of this nation," repeatedly pledge their eagerness to collaborate "in the development of an informed and enlightened public policy for the prevention of AIDS."
In a document marked by compassion for victims of the dread disease, the bishops address a variety of AIDS-related controversies, opposing both "widespread mandatory testing" for AIDS and "indiscriminate quarantining" of persons with AIDS.
The bishops "strongly condemn" increasingly "negative attitudes as well as acts of violence directed against gay and lesbian people."
They expressed concern over health care professionals who refuse medical or dental care to AIDS victims. "We call upon all in the health care and support professions to be mindful of their general moral obligation" to care for such persons, while taking the necessary precautions.
Hospitals, especially Catholic hospitals, the bishops said, "have the responsibility and obligation to ensure that persons with AIDS and their families are cared for compassionately."
Catholic institutions and "the whole church," they said, "have roles to play in ensuring dignity, acceptance, care and justice for people with HIV infections and their families."
Persons with AIDs "should be encouraged to lead productive lives in their community and place of work," the bishops said. They added that the Catholic Church "accepts its responsibility to give a good example" in seeing that any AIDS victims on its payroll "be employed as long as it is appropriate."
The statement said that "landlords are not justified" in denying decent housing to AIDS victims "merely because of their illness." It also called on funeral directors not to refuse services to persons who died of AIDS
Infection with AIDS "in and of itself" should not exclude a student from Catholic elementary or secondary schools or religious education programs, the statement said.
The bishops called for increased federal funding for AIDS research and for the care of AIDS victims who lack adequate health insurance or private resources.
The conditional acceptance of condoms is expected to draw the fire of conservatives even though the bishops make a strong case for the traditional Catholic view that human sexuality "is to be genitally expressed only in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship of lasting fidelity in marriage."
The statement is the work of a four-bishop task force headed by Bishop William Hughes of Covington, Ky. Work on the document could not be completed in time for consideration at the bishops' annual meeting last month. Because of the urgent nature of the subject, it was released after approval by the 48-member Administrative Board of the United States Catholic Conference.