Cardinal supports AIDS education
by Cristina Odone CARDINAL Basil Hume has stated his unequivocal support for HIV and AIDS education in Catholic schools in a letter to Education Secretary John Patten published this week.
Writing that he "would greatly regret" the exclusion of teaching on HIV and AIDS from Catholic schools, Cardinal Hume warns against the "misplaced anxiety" of parents or governors who might feel that sex education is "inappropriate or damaging to children". the Cardinal, Charles Wookey, told the Catholic Herald that the letter was written as a result of the Cardinal's meeting with John Patten at the end of last month. Mr Patten. a Catholic. had inquired about the Church's attitude towards education on HIV and AIDS,
Although the Bishops' Conference issued a statement in 1987 encouraging all Catholic schools to co-operate with parents in dealing with sex education, the Cardinal's letter sets a precedent in its whole-hearted support of teaching on AIDS and HIV in Catholic schools as a means to "dispel myths" and fight "prejudices" harboured against AIDS victims.
Catholic AIDS Link spokesman Martin Pendergast praised the letter as "the affirmation we have been seeking from the • Church" of its commitment to combating AIDS.
The timing of the Cardinal's letter is being interpreted as particularly significant: it follows a House of Lords debate, spearheaded by Conservative pressure groups, on an amendment to the 1988 Education Reform Act which would add a conscience clause allowing teachers who disagree with AIDS education to opt out.
Though the amendment was defeated by the Lords last week, it is expected to come up for debate again in the Commons.
The Bishops' Conference is at present updating guidelines shortly to be released on the issue of HIV and AIDS education.
According to Martin Penclerga.st, "the letter makes it clear that the Cardinal is not sympathetic to the position of those who have campaigned to keep sex education off the Catholic schools' curriculum."
A spokesman for Quest. the Catholic gay support group, agreed that the letter showed there was "no hierarchical support for some of the extreme conservative opposition" to the inclusion of AIDS and HIV education in the National Curriculum.
The Catholic director of Family and Youth Concern, one of the pressure groups actively campaigning in support of the conscience clause, criticised the Cardinal for placing his trust in teachers. "We can't trust the teachers. They often get the AIDS unit to come to the classroom and push their line," Valerie Riches said. "AIDS is not a heterosexual problem, so I don't see why they have to teach it to children of a tender age."
Mrs Riches said that she thought the AIDS issue "is much more complicated than the Cardinal realises".
In his letter, Cardinal Hume clearly outlines the "whole person approach" which he envisions for the teaching of AIDS and HIV in Catholic schools: sex education is not to be limited to a specific course but "based on a clear moral foundation of Christian values". Sex education, the Cardinal emphasises, should be "appropriate to the intellectual.
emotional, and moral development of children".
Kevin Thomas of the Catholic Media Office said that the letter echoes in its "sympathetic and open tone the Catholic Church's position on sex education in general".
Asked if Conservative pressure groups were likely to mount a campaign of reaction to the Cardinal's position on the issue of sex education, Mrs Riches said that she had already written to the Cardinal earlier in the year, expressing her concern. "We shall simply have to write to him again."
The importance of the Cardinal's letter, said Martin Pendergast, "lies in its message of social justice, dispelling those myths which so many patents have allowed their children to grow up with regarding AIDS," "If this is the official Catholic position on the issue," concluded Mr Pentergast. "Then I am very happy about it."