Catholic Hierarchy Split Over AIDS-Education Guidelines

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A policy paper by the nation's Roman Catholic bishops that was intended to clarify the church's perspective on aids has fueled a long-standing debate over whether Catholic schools should teach that condoms can help prevent the spread of the disease.

The unusual public discord over the statement among prominent church leaders, some Catholic educators warn, could delay implementation of aids curricula in church schools, which generally lag behind their public counterparts in teaching about acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

At issue is a document released Dec. 10 by the administrative board of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has the authority to act for the country's 300 bishops between meetings of the full conference.

While restating traditional church doctrine on sexuality, which strongly condemns extramarital sex and artificial methods of contraception, the paper acknowledges that "some people will not act as they can and should."

For that reason, it says, aids-education efforts "could include accurate information about prophylactic devices or other practices proposed by some medical experts as potential means of preventing aids."

The document drew heated responses from a number of leading prelates, most notably Cardinal'Connor, the Archbishop of New York.

Cardinal O'Connor denounced the paper two days after it was released, saying it causes "serious confusion" about the church's prohibition on contraception. He forbade any instruction about condoms in his archdiocese.

Other bishops defended the paper, and the president of the conference, Archbishop John L. May of St. Louis, contradicted a report by Cardinal O'Connor's office that the document had been withdrawn.

The policy "stands and is neither being withdrawn nor temporarily set aside," the Archbishop said in a statement late last month.

"It's frustrating for teachers in the classroom to read about this debate amongst the Catholic hierarchy and then have to figure out some way of answering a child's questions," said the Rev. Matthew A. Kawiak, an associate pastor at St. Boniface Church in Rochester, N.Y.

"Why can't we teach about the disease without worrying if we're loyal to our tradition?" asked Father Kawiak, the author of Parents Talk Love, a controversial book for Catholic parents on human sexuality that discusses the use of condoms to help prevent the spread of aids.

Wide-Ranging Statement

The 30-page paper, "The Many Faces of aids: A Gospel Response," is the bishops' first major statement on the deadly disease. Drafted over nine months by four bishops, it is a wide-ranging examination of the moral and public-policy issues raised by the aids epidemic.

Among other statements, the paper strongly condemns discrimination against aids victims and members of high-risk groups, questions the wisdom of widespread mandatory testing for the virus, and reminds health-care workers of their responsibility to treat aids patients.

It also calls for aids education at "every appropriate level" of Catholic schooling, from the elementary grades to colleges and seminaries. Curricular guidelines and materials on the disease "should stress the importance of chastity," it says.

The only "morally correct and medically sure ways" to prevent aids, the paper says, are "abstinence outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage as well as the avoidance of intravenous drug abuse."

Despite such affirmations of traditional church precepts, the authors' carefully worded comments on providing information about condoms--contained in a passage discussing "public educational programs addressed to a wide audience"--drew the wrath of several of the hierarchy's more conservative members.

Cardinal Bernard Law, Archbishop of Boston, and Archbishop Edmund Szoka of Detroit were among those echoing Cardinal O'Connor's disapproval of any softening of the church's opposition to contraceptives.

But other bishops, including Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago and one of the main authors of the policy paper, defended the document as being "faithful" to Catholic doctrine and "sensitive to the human dimensions of the issue."

Meanwhile, Archbishop May, citing "widespread misperceptions" about the paper, said he would suggest adding the issue to the agenda for the bishops' next meeting as a group, scheduled for June 24-27.

'Frustrating for Teachers'

Some Catholic educators who have advocated providing students with information about condom use in the prevention of aids said the dispute has caused more uncertainty about what they will be allowed to teach.

Even before the bishops' paper, Catholic-school officials were divided on whether to address the condom issue. (See Education Week, March 25, 1987.)

In the Diocese of Cleveland, one of the few Catholic dioceses to adopt an aids curriculum this year, teachers are allowed to teach that condoms may prevent the spread of aids.

"An aids curriculum would lack credibility if it did not discuss the use of condoms," said Sister Christine Vladimiroff, superintendent of schools for the diocese.

In the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, however, officials recently released guidelines for teaching about aids in elementary schools. The guidelines do not allow the discussion of condoms.

"You will see camps forming on both sides of the issue," Sister Vladimiroff predicted. "Unfortunately, it's going to siphon off some energy that could be used to develop realistic guidelines and curricula on aids."

Sister Catherine McNamee, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, said her group is developing an aids curriculum that will be neutral on the subject of condoms.

"We expect schools would follow whatever guidelines are in force in their diocese," she said.

Vol. 07, Issue 15 & 16

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