Americans face epidemic of fear about spread of AIDS. Church leaders would help victims -- without condoning life styles

The religious community is approaching the issue of AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) with compassion, but caution. Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish groups contacted by the Monitor suggested that:

Churches and synogogues must assist those who are victims of this disease -- but most have not yet outlined specific steps of help.

The devotion of religious groups to addressing this problem in no way suggests an acceptance of homosexuality -- one activity that is considered a major transmitter of AIDS.

Those committed to the teachings of the Scriptures have a ``mandate'' to help the sick, the poor, the dispossessed, and those considered ``outcasts'' by some of society.

Many religious pastors also acknowledge that it is important to deal with the questions of homosexual life style and the moral issue of sexual promiscuity in addressing the problem of AIDS. But most say this must be done without ``condemning'' the victim and possibly driving him away from spiritual counseling.

``I don't condone homosexuality. But I am committed to love. And I seek to bring support and help for [any] victim,'' says Bishop Philip R. Cousin, president of the National Council of Churches (NCC) and a minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Bishop Cousin, who heads the largest umbrella group of Protestants in the world, stresses that Christians ``must be loving and compassionate toward victims of AIDS without condoning how AIDS is transmitted [through homosexual activity].''

``We must stop this mad rush toward panic. We cannot let AIDS control us,'' the NCC president said during a broader-based interview with the Monitor in his New York office. ``The church must be a voice of freedom and understanding [during the AIDS crisis]. But we must also be a source of strength.''

Some NCC members have suggested that Protestant groups urge the federal government to pour massive federal funds into research about AIDS and help provide hospices and shelters for its victims. However, the organization has taken no official action along these lines.

Other major church groups seem to be taking similar approaches. Michael Schwartz, a spokesman for the Milwaukee-based [Roman] Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, says: ``We must look at this [AIDS] as any other public health problem -- taking appropriate steps to prevent the disease and helping those who have it.''

He admits that the connection with homosexuality complicates the matter as does the public hysteria regarding how the disease might be transmitted.

``The Roman Catholic Church and most other Jewish and Protestant groups regard homosexuality as a sin. But these people -- as any others -- have a right to be helped,'' Mr. Schwartz stresses.

The Rev. James M. Wall, editor of the Christian Century, a leading Protestant publication, says different religious sects vary in their views about homosexuality. ``But I can't imagine even the most hard-line `sin' people not being compassionate about people with AIDS,'' he adds.

``It is totally consistent,'' says the Rev. Mr. Wall, ``to preach a sermon against sin and still help victims of AIDS.''

When AIDS first came into broad public view about four years ago, church-related discussions about it were inevitably entwined with positions on homosexuality. Some fundamentalist ministers reportedly suggested that the disease might be God's retribution on a sinful people.

During this time, the rise of the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) -- a denomination that claims almost 300 congregations in 10 countries with mainly homosexual parishioners -- has sparked sharp controversy, particularly among Protestant sects. The National Council of Churches, under pressure from mainly conservative members, has so far refused official recognition to the MCC.

The Rev. Troy Perry of the MCC says he is opposed by official churchdom on his thesis that ``a person can be both Christian and gay.'' And now, he says, homosexuals must fight the additional claim that AIDS may be some type of ``divine punishment against gays.''

While church groups seem to reject the idea of retribution -- divine or other -- almost all condemn promiscuity as something which religion must address and hopefully heal.

Presbyterian minister John C. Bush admits that many pastors are ``uncomfortable with the promiscuity question particularly as it relates to AIDS.'' But the Rev. Mr. Bush, executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, adds that churches must take this opportunity to deal with the life-style question particularly in their counseling of youth. Morality and ethics are central to the church's ministry, Mr. Bush stresses. And he says these things must be taught without condemnation of in dividuals.

Many religious counselors, however, have tended to sidestep the homosexuality issue and concentrate on helping victims of AIDS as their first priority. For example, at its recent general convention in Anaheim, Calif., the Episcopal Church took the position that support for AIDS victims should be part of the concern for the ``poor and the powerless'' of the world, including prison inmates and blacks in South Africa.

In a current issue of the Christian Century, Earl E. Shelp and Ronald H. Sunderland, research fellows at the Texas Medical Center's Institute of Religion, take the position that whether or not public agencies provide the resources to meet the AIDS crisis, the ``church'' has a prime duty to respond to this problem.

Drs. Shelp and Sunderland point out that religious people must reflect in their lives the ``spirit of the Lord who commanded his fellow servants to do for one another what he had done for them.''

``The Gospel of Luke is noted,'' they say, ``for its emphasis on Jesus as the humble, loving, compassionate Christ who holds the poor, the outcast, and the dispossessed in special regard.''

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