June 14, 2011 – What the Pope Has to Say About Women and HIV
This opinion piece is in response to Nancy Goldstein’s discussion of the debate occurring at the United Nations over the drafting of the Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS (See “Why Won’t the Pope Let Women Protect Themselves From HIV?” June 8, Guardian).
She criticizes Benedict XVI (otherwise known as the Holy See in international law) for having an all-male delegation, but in fact, the delegation contained three women, two of whom were law professors. She also implies that the Pope is anti-woman, when in fact he strongly promotes respect for the inherent dignity of women and girls in fundamental documents, as well as in his catechesis, speeches, messages, homilies, conferences and other activities. Moreover, one of the Vatican’s dicasteries, the Pontifical Council for the Laity, has a section devoted to the Study of the Dignity and Vocation of Women, where it implements teachings with particular attention to the equal dignity of man and woman.
The Pope maintains that there are “deep fundamental anthropological truths of man and woman, the equality of their dignity and the unity of both, the well rooted and profound diversity between the masculine and the feminine and their vocation to reciprocity and complementarity, to collaboration and to communion” (Benedict XVI’s address to the conference “Woman and Man, the Humanum in its Entirety,” 2008; cf. Pope John Paul II, “Mulieris Dignitatem,” 1988, No. 6). In this way, the Pope avoids an indistinct uniformity between women and men, which constitutes a dull and impoverishing equality and counters an understanding of the relationship between women and men that pits one against the other in an endless struggle for power.
He underlines that women bear the brunt of the negative consequences associated with a denial of the complementarity of man and woman, which often dovetails into a disordered view of masculinity, and autonomy. He acknowledges the “disheartening” results flowing from the simple fact of being a female, and the reduced likelihood of: being born, surviving childhood, avoiding violence, receiving adequate nutrition, obtaining an education, accessing basic health care as well as evading HIV and AIDS (cf. Pope John Paul II, Address to Members of the Holy See Delegation to the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, 1995; See also Address of Pope Benedict XVI to the Participants of the Fifth General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops’ Conferences, Brazil, 2007).
The Pope promotes a values-based response to HIV and AIDs, which focuses on risk-elimination through: abstinence before marriage and mutual fidelity in marriage, avoiding risk-taking behaviors, and promoting universal access to drugs that prevent the spread of HIV from mother-to-child. In regard to prevention, Benedict XVI does not try to convince women that irresponsible sexual behavior or risky and dangerous encounters form part of an acceptable lifestyle. Rather, he encourages every human person to live in conformity with norms of the natural moral order, an approach that respects fully the inherent dignity of the human person by nature endowed with reason and conscience having rights and responsibilities to self, others and the community. By the way, this position is fully in conformity with international human rights law (e.g. cf. et al. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, preamble para. 1, arts. 1, 29).
In brief, the Holy Father first and foremost supports character formation and education toward proper behavior, as the key to avoiding the disease. The starting point is that the women and men can and should change irresponsible behavior. The contrary position would accept such behavior, at all costs, and then emphasize simply risk reduction (e.g. condom use or clean needles), as if persons were somehow incapable of breaking free from engaging in self-destructive behavior.
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Jane Adolphe is an associate professor of law at Ave Maria School of Law, Naples, Florida. She was a member of the Holy See’s delegation to the June 10 meeting at the United Nations on HIV/AIDS.