THE problem of AIDS is confronting the world's religious communities with some of their most acute moral and ethical challenges since the permissive society dawned back in the 1960s. An anguished debate in all the major faiths in Britain over the implications and consequences of acquired immune deficiency syndrome mirrors the wider international concern.
Writing in ``AIDS, meeting the community challenge'' (a compilation of articles by religious leaders), the chief rabbi of Britain, Sir Immanuel Jakobowits, contends that the provision of condoms, which he feels condone and encourage sexual irresponsibility, is hardly the answer to AIDS. ``What has to be carefully weighed is individual safety against the erosion of public standards,'' he writes.
To the chief rabbi, there's too much talk about the need for clean needles for intravenous drug users, who are among the known carriers of the AIDS virus, and not enough emphasis on clean speech, clean lives, and clean conduct.
THE severity and global impact of AIDS have brought in their train a deep reexamination of moral values - even if it hasn't yet prompted any great moral resurgence.
Traditionalists, adhering to a strict moral code, see AIDS as the inevitable result of society's relaxed moral restraints. Progressives say they cannot accept that AIDS reflects the wrath of God; they plead for charity in not compounding the burdens of AIDS victims by treating them as social outcasts.
``Christians must not be so appalled that they pass by on the other side,'' says the Rev. David Edwards, provost of the Church of England's Southwark Cathedral, alluding to the biblical ``good Samaritan'' story.
For the churches, many of the questions raised by AIDS are hardly academic. In several highly publicized cases, the problem is uncomfortably close to home. For instance, it has not been lost on many churchgoers that AIDS, in as much as it has affected homosexual members of the clergy, has given the lie to chastity in the Protestant churches and celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church. This, in turn, has brought loud demands from lay church members for churchmen themselves to reaffirm moral leadership.
Religious leaders of all persuasions readily concede that responsibility for safeguarding public health is up to individual governments. But the emphasis of so many government health campaigns on safer sex, rather than no sex, and on encouraging the use of condoms, rather than promoting abstinence, poses a serious moral dilemma for churches:
If they support such public-health strategies by advocating the use of condoms, then church leaders lay themselves open to the charge that they are condoning sexual promiscuity.
But opposing condoms on moral grounds could be construed as obstructing the most practical means of preventing the spread of the AIDS virus.
The Rev. Andrew Henderson is in a unique position to bridge these two points of view. He is a Church of England minister as well as municipal director of social services for Kensington and Chelsea, a London borough that has one of the highest AIDS caseloads in the nation.
When asked about the morality of making condoms available, Mr. Henderson responded immediately: ``I'm very clear about that. In a situation like this, which is a life-and-death situation, one takes steps to remove the danger to life and limb, and talks about the moral niceties afterwards.''
What worries many other religious leaders, though, is that in adopting a mechanical or physical approach to AIDS, governments might provide only a breathing space, without addressing themselves to what the churches see as essentially a moral problem.
Such misgivings are shared by the Most Rev. John Habgood, Archbishop of York, the top official in the Church of England after the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Robert Runcie. (The Church of England, the establishment church in Britain, is headed by Queen Elizabeth II.)
In an interview at Bishopthorpe Palace, just outside the medieval city of York, in the north of England, the archbishop said one of the questions considered by the British government in campaigning for safer sex ``was whether it was a good thing to advocate the use of condoms quite so publicly.''
Churches have reservations about issuing free condoms, he says, because it ``would actively encourage promiscuous sex under the guise of pretending it was safe.''
PUBLIC-HEALTH authorities find no quarrel with the moral arguments. Indeed, they say, if society had lived up to the Judeo-Christian principles of chastity and fidelity, the scourge of AIDS might not have arisen.
But these health experts insist that in today's permissive society, it's both unrealistic and impractical to expect people who have a history of multiple, random, anonymous sexual encounters to embrace total celibacy overnight. The condom is the most effective immediate protection, they say. Yet, despite churches' misgivings about the use of condoms, they have succumbed to what has been dubbed ``the high squirm factor,'' unable to take an unequivocal moral stand on AIDS.
The Rev. John Bowker, dean of chapel at Trinity College, Oxford, and president of Christian Action on AIDS, feels such criticism is particularly relevant to the Church of England. Dr. Bowker blames the Anglican Church for pressing the government to pursue its AIDS program, but then failing to take ``the moral and ethical considerations on board.'' In his view, the church has failed to articulate what it wants because it's ``so busy on winning the argument in its own churches. A moral void cannot clear up its negative disagreements.''
Caught in the cross fire between traditionalists and progressives, the churches have been unable to spell out a specific moral code. Traditionalists - including Jews, Catholics, and especially evangelical or fundamentalist Protestants, as well as most lay members of mainstream churches - are asking: Has the church lost the courage of its moral convictions? Is it afraid to take a moral lead for fear of being labeled intolerant and judgmental?
Progressives - who embrace less doctrinaire Protestants and some reformist Catholics, as well as civil libertarians - believe that moral scruples over the use of condoms should not stand in the way of providing an effective means of protection to the public. Equally, there's an insistence that it's unchristian to condemn AIDS sufferers, be they homosexual, bisexual, or drug users, and treat them as outcasts at a time when they most desperately need church support.
Archbishop Runcie, pressed by some of his own clergy as to why the church had not taken a stronger moral lead on AIDS, replied that the bedside of a sick AIDS sufferer was not the place to lay down moral strictures on homosexuality.
The contrasting position of traditionalists, who call for the rediscovery of a strict moral code, was probably most stridently expressed in Britain by the chief constable of Greater Manchester, James Anderton. Asserting that homosexuals AIDS sufferers got what they deserved, he referred to them as ``swirling in a cesspool of their own making.''
The chief constable's remarks, which were given considerable publicity, were condemned by religious leaders as uncompassionate and heavy-handed. Some churchmen, however, privately admit that the views of Mr. Anderton, a former Methodist lay preacher who has applied to join the Catholic Church, are endorsed by many people who live by traditional standards of sexual morality.
A MORE sophisticated view among traditionalists is provided by Digby Anderson, director of the Social Affairs Unit in London. Dr. Anderson, who is a frequent commentator on moral issues and who insisted he spoke in his private capacity, says the churches, principally the influential Church of England, have confused strong public moral pronouncements - the ``Thou shalt nots'' - with the obvious need for private pastoral care. He believes the two are not incompatible, and in fact go hand in hand. But he believes the church has allowed itself to think they can't. As he sees it, it has resulted in a lack of moral leadership.
``Love is a tough thing,'' he says. It calls for very tough disciplines. ``It's not one of never saying no.''
Anderson feels that the church has become too sentimental on the issue. The result, he says, ``is a very watery morality,'' because the church doesn't like ``the thought of nastiness.'' Anderson says such compassion is misguided, because, by showing compassion for everyone, ``all you do is to get more victims.''
Progressives argue that moral indignation and condemnation run the risk of whipping up hysteria and compounding, rather than easing, public anxieties. Several church leaders have also warned of the danger of treating AIDS victims as social lepers. AIDS sufferers, it was suggested, could avenge themselves by deliberately spreading the disease.
Archbishop Habgood calls for a balanced approach to the problem: ``There are people who say this is a problem for an immoral minority, and they are getting their just deserts. The church should hold back from applying that moral judgment to individuals and not add to their burdens. On the other hand, it's quite legitimate to say something about the character of a society which has allowed this disease to develop.''
He also said that too often people with an entrenched belief in morality look to the church to confirm their own expectations, and are disappointed when it doesn't. Sometimes, the archbishop said, the church may need to say something unexpected. ``Indeed, the style of moral leadership by Jesus contained very little moralizing or denunciation. Mostly it was the illumination of a problem, often in such a way that several options are open to [people] and the choice thrown back on them. Most people prefer to be told what to do. If you do just what you are told, you become a dependent, obedient, moral child.''
The AIDS problem is demanding a reassessment of a number of major moral concerns. Individual life styles, once defended as falling within the realm of adult privacy, are now more likely to be seen as putting society as a whole at risk from a virus that can be transmitted by promiscuous sex. Religious experts say that situation ethics - a byproduct of the permissiveness of the 1960s, which said that all sorts of unconventional behavior could be tolerated if there was love - is now on a slippery slope.
For theologians, the AIDS problem also adds a disturbing new dimension to a profound theological problem: How does the church square the Christian demand for repentance and forgiveness with the dire experiences of those with AIDS?
Nicholas Coote, assistant secretary-general of the Roman Catholic Church for England and Wales, says that with previous moral offenses, the church's position is ``OK, you can slip, fall, and repent and the slate is wiped clean. The devastating thing about AIDS is you repent and die.'' (AIDS is considered medically incurable).
Aside from forcing churches to reassess their moral positions, AIDS has also put in much starker focus the contentious moral issue of homosexuality. Although AIDS in Africa is primarily a heterosexual condition, homosexuals and bisexuals account for easily the largest group affected by AIDS in Western Europe and the United States.
Traditionally, homosexuality has been condemned by major religious faiths as contrary to biblical teachings. St. Paul, for instance, condemned ``men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly'' (Romans 2:27).
While the Catholic Church does not sanction homosexuality, ``we're not saying homosexuality by orientation or inclination is wrong,'' says Mr. Coote. In other words, it is homosexual acts, rather than homosexual leanings, that raise moral objections. This view is widely accepted by many other churches.
The Catholic Church says it regards such acts of homosexuality compassionately, even while objecting to them. Thus Catholic homosexuals who indulge in homosexual practices are expected to reform, or, as Coote puts it, they must ``keep on picking themselves up from the floor.''
The guidance that Coote, one of two principal spokesmen on AIDS for the Catholic Church, would give to a Catholic homosexual who was living with a homosexual lover is: ``We understand for the moment that you can't separate from your lover. But from now on you've got to begin the process of detachment. You can live in the house with this person, but you must be absolutely chaste.''
MORAL guidelines over homosexuality are fuzzier within the Church of England. This reflects an evolving attitude on just how far the church is willing to go toward accepting homosexuals.
``[The churches] see the need for acceptance of homosexuality, and for helping them through to more responsible life styles,'' says the Archbishop of York, ``and yet within the churches there is a strong rejection of homosexuality.''
Dr. Habgood admits that AIDS has not helped generate a more sympathetic attitude toward homosexuals. When asked whether the Church of England categorically accepted people who were homosexual by orientation and inclination, as well as homosexuals who lived together in a permanent, caring relationship, but specifically excluded homosexuals who were promiscuous, the archbishop replied, ``I would accept those distinctions entirely.''
``Many homosexuals,'' he adds, ``would say they were driven into the third category. I'm not sure that is an acceptable argument.''
But it is an argument that is voiced in more liberal church circles. According to Henderson, the social services director, people with AIDS carry with them ``the burden of disapproval and marginalization, which is the way they are treated. The disease of AIDS activates that internalized burden, because they feel - what has always been the case - that there is something wrong or bad with them.'' To that extent, society bears some responsibility for their condition, Henderson says.
Some religious leaders take the view that the permissive scene of gay bars, one-night stands, and homosexual bathhouses resulted from repression by society. Blessing homosexual marriages would significantly curtail this kind of behavior, they contend.
But powerful arguments have been marshaled on the other side that excess merely feeds on excess. In 1967, the Sexual Offenders Act in Britain was passed to decriminalize all sexual relations between consenting adults in private. Although it reduced blackmail (one of its intended objectives), and lessened the moral stigma against homosexuality, it has had no apparent effect in reducing promiscuous homosexual activity. The AIDS epidemic suggests the opposite has occurred.
Another reason frequently cited to explain the promiscuous behavior of some homosexuals is that they have deep social inadequacies which make it difficult or impossible for them to carry on stable permanent relationships. Instead, they are driven to numerous encounters of casual sex.
Not all homosexuals are promiscuous, churchmen point out. Promiscuity, they add, can be as evident among heterosex-uals as it can among homosexuals and bisexuals.
Meanwhile, the argument over the acceptability of homosexuality rages on within the divided Church of England. Bowker of Oxford University says neither side can win it; at this stage ``it would be premature to see one side giving in to the other.''
Those in the Church of England who are more tolerant toward homosexuality cite what they say is scientific evidence suggesting that some people are biologically predisposed to homosexuality.
Mr. Edwards, provost of Southwark Cathedral, says the Anglican Church is coming together to overcome its intense dislike and suspicion of homosexuals - ``a suspicion,'' he says, ``I share.''
Yet he believes that gays who cannot relate to people of the opposite sex are placed in a quandary: ``Those homosexuals who are homosexual by birth can't help it, and are exclusively homosexual. What are they supposed to do?'' Other medical experts maintain that homosexuality is not necessarily an irreversible, inherited trait.
IN evidence to a House of Commons committee on AIDS last year, the General Synod of the Church of England's board for social responsibility said that while some in the church hold to the traditional view on homosexuality, others ``leave the issue to private judgment where a stable caring relationship exists.'' To which Clifford Longley, religious correspondent of the London Times and a practicing Catholic, retorted in an article: ``In short, the Church of England has failed to answer the question of whether sodomy is sinful.''
Increasingly, traditionalists, who turn to the Bible for vindication of their position that homosexuality is contrary to Scripture, are being challenged by progressives who say today's arguments over morality are too complicated to be clinched by simply citing biblical texts.
What are not in doubt are the potentially dire physical consequences of defying or living outside the moral law.
To the Archbishop of York, who is both a theologian and a natural scientist by training, the risk of AIDS reinforces the wisdom of such Christian principles as chastity and fidelity. Habgood also suggests that even if people dismiss Christian morality, per se, the laws of nature still lead to the same conclusion: the need to protect and defend the physical body.
The breakdown of the body's immune system, the effect of AIDS, is, from a physiological point of view, the result of the special biological link between intimacy and vulnerability.
Eventually, Habgood says, Christian morality and natural law meet. ``Christian morality is what is best for human beings. All human beings. How far you can discover what is best for human beings without drawing on Christian presuppositions is what moralists have been arguing about for donkey's years.''
In Wednesday's front-page story on the churches' response to AIDS, a Bible passage was incorrectly cited as Romans 2:27. The correct reference is Romans 1:27.