by Peter Stanford
BRITAIN'S first national network for Catholics involved in the fight against AIDS was announced this week. Aimed at both those who are HIV positive, or who have full-blown AIDS, and individuals who wish to care and support patients, Catholic AIDS Link is a response to the "significant numbers" of church people affected by the virus, one of its founders told the Catholic Herald.
Martin Pendergast, a senior social worker with the London Borough of Lambeth, said that the new organisation planned to develop support amongst Catholics for other agencies at a local and national level which are already caring for HIV and AIDS patients and to fill existing pastoral gaps.
Such agencies would range from Cafod, which is funding projects to help deal with the AIDS epidemic in Africa, to the Terrence Higgins Trust. Mr Pendergast praised the pioneering work of THT amongst drug users in the prevention of the spread of AIDS, but pointed out that the new Catholic organisation would make clear its differences over some of the Trust's more explicit safer sex materials which go against church teachings.
It was important though, he stressed, not to "start from a position of excluding different approaches, but rather from the bottom line of a joint commitment to care and compassion".
He felt that a non-judgemental approach to issues of sexual morality as demonstrated in the recent Catholic bishops' schools video, "A Time to Embrace" would also characterise the work of Catholic AIDS Link. "The direct effects of AIDS are firstly a human matter that affects all of us regardless of sexual orientation".
Co-founders with Mr Pendergast of the new body are Peter Harris, a past chairman of Quest, the pastoral organisation aimed at supporting the homosexual Catholic, and Krystyna Fuchs, a member of the Inter-Church Group at the Terrence Higgins Trust.
Catholic AIDS Link counts amongst its patrons Fr Michael Campbell-Johnston, the Provincial of the Jesuits, Bishop Victor Guazzelli, auxiliary in Westminster, Sr Dorothy Bell, a Sacred Heart nun and principal of Digby Stuart College in London, Dr Peter Jones, a leading haemotologist at Newcastle Royal Infirmary, the Duchess of Norfolk, Sr Barbara Lowe, provincial of the Holy Child Jesus sisters, and Liberal peer, Lord Tordoff.
The organisation has also held discussions with officials of the Catholic bishops' conference of England and Wales, and plans to lobby the conference in the future on such AIDS-related matters as suitable educational material, use of church property in the support of AIDS patients, and employment discrimination against those who are HIV positive.
Mr Pendergast noted with particular concern the growth in America of the practice of requiring potential seminarians to undergo an AIDS test before they could be accepted by religious orders. Often this is carried out under the pretext of ensuring that all seminarians are eligible for private health care arrangements that individual orders may have set up, he added. Catholic AIDS Link would be examining this issue, and its ramifications for this country, and advising the bishops appropriately, he added.
Catholic AIDS Link will be holding an initial consultation at Heythrop College later this month as a follow up to previous conferences on the subject. Training sessions for potential counsellors will be organised. A Mass for World AIDS Day, December 1, is to be held at the French Church in Leicester Square at 6.30pm. Bishop John Crowley, auxiliary in Westminster, will celebrate.
Mr Pendergast hailed the widespread support that the new organisation had found already as evidence that church people are "moving away from moralistic judgements on AIDS and those who are HIV positive, towards constructive support".