HIV and The Priest

Circulating on Facebook is a poster with a non-Catholic priest openly admitting that he has HIV. The poster reads: “I am a priest. I got tested for HIV. Your HIV status is a medical diagnosis, not a moral judgment.”

Many, including myself, are ignorant about HIV. Even those who have contracted it are not fully knowledgeable about it. There is a growing number who are caught unaware that they have it. And those who suspect they have it shun medical care for fears of being ostracized by their peers. What we know is one gets HIV primarily through sexual intercourse. The HIV virus is also transmitted by using infected needles, syringes or other medical equipment that aids in blood transfusion. For the sadder scenario of mother-to-child, it is passed on through pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding.

What is HIV and how is it different from AIDS? My layman appreciation of it is HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is the virus while AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is the disease – the last and most advanced stage of HIV infection. HIV causes AIDS, but AIDS is not always the result of HIV. When properly monitored and treated, someone with HIV can live a healthy life and not advance to AIDS. There is no known cure yet though to both HIV and AIDS.

But let me move away from a medical/technical discussion about HIV or AIDS as I am not an expert.

HIV

Assuming the poster about the priest with HIV is accurate, my thoughts:

The message is clear: “Your HIV status is a medical diagnosis, not a moral judgment.” True. HIV should in no way legitimize any and all form of discrimination against anyone who has it, regardless of how he or she may have contracted it. In a documentary on HIV in Myanmar, many die not just because of poor medical care but because of loneliness due to abandonment.

But while the poster is powerful, I doubt it downplays the issue of moral judgment. The context within which it was made presupposes failure or a lapse in judgement on the part of what culturally is a morally upright person: a priest. “Culturally” – to loosen up the screws around the concept of morality, as while one looks at a priest as holy, another might regard him as no less capable of sinning as any human on earth.

HIV being a “morality issue” stems from social constructions that define the nature of the act and assign expectations on persons committing the act based on who they are and what they do.

On one hand, this is unfair as it perpetuates stereotypes, breeds social stigma, and builds shaky paradigms of entitlement. It unfairly creates molds that automatically align vulnerabilities (and strengths) with socio-economic profiles.

On the other, the “morality issue” is valid as it protects social structures, reinforces value systems, and piggybacks on how certain institutions project themselves to be. In the case of churches, they are purveyors of what is right and just; thus, ideally, must be at the forefront in the walk of their talk.

Perhaps, because many associate the experiences of those with HIV contracted through sex with the words “regret” and “learn”, people highlight HIV being a result of a mistake, an irresponsibility, or lack of education. Because it is taken to be this and more, it gives rise to the issue of whether the act is right or wrong, moral or immoral.

In the case of the priest, the usual reaction is naturally hinged on how his vocation and the institution that he belongs elevate them to be a source of enlightenment on issues, especially those treading the thin line of morality. While it is right for HIV (result) in itself to be described as – as it really should – a “medical diagnosis”, the act (cause) can hardly escape from being subjected to moral judgment.

How was it committed? Why did he do it? Especially under the assumption that it was sexual, these questions take on more weight when asked in relation to the person that committed it. When the act contradicts with the very teachings he proclaimed in public and the faith he openly vowed to promote, he pierced the veil that bound him and the institution as one. The question on morality therefore emanates not just from an act with repercussions on an individual, but one that has compromised the trust that many have placed in the priest as a representation of a collective faith commitment.

Were he not a priest, would the issue on moral judgment be subtler? Perhaps, yes. By then, he would just be among the flock and not the shepherd.

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