e-mail us


Body of Christ has AIDS; church has some answers

Edited by James F. Keenan, S.J.,
with Jon D. Fuller, S.J.,
Lisa Sowle Cahill and Kevin Kelly
Continuum: 2000, 351 pages, $24.95


It is the body of Christ that has AIDS, not an isolated individual. Therefore, the face of AIDS is global, and the response to Christ’s face must be worldwide, bold, creative, humane and faithful to Roman Catholicism’s finest moral wisdom. That theological anthropology pervades this book. Jesuit Fr. James F. Keenan brilliantly edits an anthology that analyzes the pandemic from the perspectives of the best that contemporary Roman Catholic moral theology has to offer.

Wisely, this work stresses the multifaceted issues of preventing the spread of the HIV virus. And prevention within a Catholic context includes not only thorny questions about using condoms and sponsoring needle exchange programs, but also the deeply systemic embedded problems of exploitive global economic systems, racism, poverty and the status of women.

Collectively, the authors here gathered work addressing the theological, social, cultural, economic, gender, medical and pastoral dimensions of AIDS. Their treatments inform the intellect, excite the imagination, stir the heart and inspire the spirit to draw from centuries of accumulated moral wisdom within the Catholic tradition and bring it to bear on this crushing contemporary reality.

Fuller and Keenan’s introduction will jolt some and come as welcome relief to others. They show how contemporary moral theologians, using a refined casuistry, applying the principles of toleration, cooperation and double effect, can and do make a credible case for using condoms and needle exchange programs as steps toward the prevention of the spread of the HIV virus. They do so while remaining faithful to pertinent official authoritative church teachings, convincingly demonstrating just how pro-life these measures can be.

Readers are then treated to the first of two major parts of the book titled “The Cases.” Each chapter begins with a detailed case study representing diverse cultural predicaments arising from the AIDS pandemic. The spectrum of contexts is global: Ireland, Rakia Africa, Brazil, Bangladesh and England, for example. The cases are analyzed, revealing the moral issues and conundrums involved, and then addressed within the context of Catholic moral theology. Throughout, these chapters present insights, hopes, frustrations, recommendations for action and questions for further deliberation.

Part two, “Fundamental Moral Issues for HIV Prevention,” does not address specific cases per se but rather lays out conceptual and experiential moral-theological foundations that help ground the analyses in part one and direct further reflections and judgments.

Herein we find out how moral tradition progresses and develops; how justice and the common good relate to AIDS; strengths and weaknesses of casuistry in connection with this pandemic; a vision for developing the meaningfulness of sexuality for our world’s youths; and how the challenge and risks of the reign of God can be applied to the present predicament.

The entire book -- but especially this part -- is an eye-opening demonstration of how Catholic moral theology works in the concrete. It is a primer for understanding the terminology and rationales of this proud tradition. Readers are not only presented with significant terms such as casuistry, the principles of tolerance, totality, nonmaleficence, subsidiarity and beneficence. But better yet, they are shown what the terms mean and imply when put into actual practice -- and how to put them into actual practice.

In addition, the functions of issues such as context, intentions, contingencies, and variabilities are shown in concrete reasoning. We are educated about what moral principles are and how they work in a creative dialogue between what we understand the principles to be and what our experiences of reality tell us about them, and vice-versa.

The section also clearly shows why moral principles need an anthropological anchor so they can operate well. Other treasures of the Catholic moral tradition are showcased, such as the dignity of the human person, the common good, the preferential option for the poor, structural sin and God’s reign. We also encounter the too-often neglected realities of joy and humor as part of the process of moral adjudication.

The authors show a profound respect and reverence for official church teachings relevant to the AIDS crisis. They offer a bracingly positive assessment of the church’s ability to enter into the fray of this pandemic and constructively participate in worldwide measures to prevent its spread.

Examine this book carefully and see if you agree with these authors that the Catholic tradition of moral theology is robust, timely, supple, humane and, most of all, wise enough to make vital contributions to ongoing global discussions about this current state of the Body of Christ.

William F. McInerny is professor of theology and religious studies at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo. His e-mail address is William.McInerny@rockhurst.edu

National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2000