In the ongoing debate over religion’s role in global human suffering, faith groups have often defended religion’s track record in feeding the hungry, giving to the poor, and caring for the ill, while the secular have often criticised religion’s emphasis on traditional, abstract moral principles over practical solutions to disease-prevention among the poor and under-privileged. This debate has become especially heated in the struggle to stem the growing worldwide HIV epidemic. While some members of the Catholic and Islamic clergy have disparaged or disregarded the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV, touting instead the virtues of abstinence, health-care workers, human rights activists, and non-profit organisations have accused them of contributing to the crisis through their stigmatisation of condom use. Efforts to persuade clergy to re-think the virtues of condom use have proved very gradual, but there is some evidence of changing attitudes.

Catholicism has traditionally extolled the virtue of uncompromising chastity, presenting perhaps the greatest barrier to promoting condoms as a practical disease prevention technique. The religion-based stigma against safe sex is still widespread in the Philippines, a bastion of Catholicism. According to IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reports, “[a]bout 80 per cent of [Filipinos] are Catholic, giving the church a key role in shaping public opinion and influencing government policy”; indeed, the same source reports that the church has balked attempts to pass the country’s Reproductive Health Bill, “which would standardize access to sexual health services and information”, because church officials believe that “the legislation would promote abortion and promiscuity”. Obviously, it is the fact that condom use presupposes sexual activity that ruffles the sensibilities of religious conservatives; all too often, perhaps, such leaders forego rational problem-solving for the predictability of abstract laws.

The ethical question for the pious laity therefore becomes, “Which is the bigger sin? To have safe yet unchaste sex, or to deny sexual health information to those who will go ahead and have sex anyway, and possibly spread further disease?” This is the critical point where the faithful must decide whether reliance on age-old doctrine or utilitarian reasoning is the superior moral compass. After all, the religions of the world emphasise the plight of the ill as well as the virtue of chastity. What is the motivation for chastity, moreover? We might speculate that in ancient societies, in addition to population control and lineage concerns, chastity signified ‘purity’—that is, physical as well as mental or spiritual wholeness—serving as a very practical means of preventing disease in a time when modern-day prophylactics were unavailable. If so, this function of chastity has become redundant with the introduction of such disease-prevention measures, and the vestigial anxieties over the health-risks of promiscuity seem largely unfounded.

Perhaps, then, there exists no real conflict between safe sex and religion; perhaps the faithful have little to be concerned about. In this case, what progress is being made in convincing clergy of the possible morality of condom use? The British Muslim community has been confronted with the ethical questions surrounding safe sex, showing small signs of a shift towards the promotion of sexual health information. Quoting Ismael, an HIV+ Sudanese man, the BBC’s Religious Affairs Correspondent Roger Pigott reports, “The imams don’t talk too much about it, but they start off by saying ‘this is a taboo, this is a sin, a punishment from Allah’ “, so imams like Mohamed Bashir have fought to convince their peers to confront HIV as a Muslim health issue. Still, he says, “It won’t be considered responsible to say ‘when you’re making a mistake make sure you use a condom’, because that could be misunderstood as condoning that particular activity’ “. Thus, the ancient roots of the cult of chastity—particularly anxiety over disease-spreading promiscuity—holds fast even in modern-day Muslim communities, perpetuating silence and shame while, ironically, allowing the disease to target its prey.

The current snail’s-pace shift in attitudes towards safe sex in religious communities is a start, but it remains insufficient to turn the tide against the HIV epidemic. As their persistent attitudes about chastity show, Catholic and Muslim clergy have yet to set the right moral priorities, and in the meantime their laity suffer the consequences. This accusation may seem bewildering to the religious conservative, but one thing is certain: if preserving the health of the community is a core moral principle of the world’s religions, it is the responsibility of religious leaders to shed outmoded doctrine and employ practical measures to prevent the spread of disease.

BBC News

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