MAXWELL:  Dogma and reality

4/10/1995- Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Pope John Paul II has issued the 11th encyclical of his 16-year papacy. Again, John Paul has been true to form: He reaffirmed dogma. And again, his pronouncements collide with the social and medical realities that most Catholics experience.

Titled “Evangelium Vitae,” or “Gospel of Life,” the encyclical advocates in unequivocal language a “culture of life” and condemns an encroaching “culture of death” _ contemporary acceptance of practices such as abortion, contraception, the use of human embryos for research, euthanasia and capital punishment. Each practice, John Paul writes, threatens human freedom and dignity.

Most people applaud the pope’s inspiring celebration of human life. But many others on the world’s front lines of human suffering, while agreeing with John Paul in principle, believe that he is naive to make moral pronouncements that are isolated from the daily lives of the faithful in Third World nations.

Zimbabwe, where Catholics number 800,000 in a population of 12-million, is an example of a place where religious dogma is grossly out of synch with flesh-and-blood reality.

“From the pope’s side, I can see he is upholding the values of the church, and I certainly support his stand on euthanasia and abortion,” said a nun who works each day with people with AIDS in this southern African nation. “But living here in Zimbabwe with 600,000 orphans created by the AIDS epidemic, I can see there is an argument for family planning and for the use of condoms to combat the spread of AIDS and HIV. It puts me in a dilemma, a moral quandary.”

The number of AIDS cases in Zimbabwe is rising exponentially among the sexually active. And clinic workers, many of them Catholics who support condom use, report that half of the pregnant women seeking care are infected. But the pope is opposed to condom use. His opposition makes no practical sense in a place like Zimbabwe.

Perhaps the pope should listen to another Catholic, Gabriele Cantele, who has worked with HIV and AIDS patients in Zimbabwe for several years: “I myself as a Catholic am in favor of birth control and condoms. The church is late to recognize that it is not immoral to use condoms. . . . It is just like the church was 300 years late in reinstating Galileo after excommunicating him for saying the Earth revolves around the sun. The church is late to recognize what is really moral in the light of AIDS and the demographic explosion. That is more apparent here in Africa than in Rome.”

“Evangelium Vitae” is an impassioned plea for dignifying human life from inception to the grave. But in many parts of the world _ where most newborns stand a good chance of contracting HIV from their mothers _ the womb is a direct path to an early grave. Is there human dignity for children who must suffer and die of AIDS because of the sins of their parents?