In an open letter to the archbishops and bishops of the Church of Ireland, one of the Church’s leading evangelical laymen, Dermot O’Callaghan, has expressed criticism of the approach taken by Christian Aid in respect of HIV/ AIDS prevention.
Mr O’Callaghan, who has been both a lay reader in the Diocese of Down and a member of General Synod for over 30 years, refers to his recent letters to the Gazette on combating AIDS (Letters, 11th January, page 7, and 15th February, page 9) and to the reply from Tendai Madondo, Programme Development Officer of Christian Aid Ireland (Letters, 25th January, page 7).
In one of those letters, Mr O’Callaghan criticised the approach of Christian Aid to the ‘SAVE’ strategy to HIV/AIDS, suggesting that this method had abandoned moral responsibility in favour of political correctness, and advocating that the older ‘ABC’ method was a more effective strategy for HIV prevention.
The SAVE approach stands for Safe sexual practices (abstinence, condoms, transfusions and being faithful), Access to available treatment and medication, Voluntary counselling, and Empowerment. It is considered by Christian Aid to be a comprehensive method to equip people to protect themselves from the virus and as encompassing care for those living with HIV.
The alternative ABC method – Abstinence, Be faithful, use a Condom – which is favoured by Mr O’Callaghan as a balanced and evidence-based approach to HIV/AIDS prevention has been attacked by Christian Aid in the past.
In his letter to the archbishops and bishops, Mr O’Callaghan states that "to my astonishment, an authoritative article has just been published which confirms all that I have been saying, and more."
The article in question – AIDS and the Churches: Getting the Story Right – was written by Edward C. Green, Director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at the Harvard Centre for Population and Development Studies, and Allison Herling Ruark, a Research Fellow at the Centre (see First Things article HERE).
Mr O’Callaghan points out that the authors argue that epidemiological evidence is increasingly challenging the wisdom which says that poverty, gender inequality, powerlessness and social instability, etc. are the main drivers of the HIV/AIDS pandemic; rather, the "true driver" is sexual behaviour.
He goes on to quote how the authors are very critical of the SAVE approach: "The problem with SAVE, however, is that three of the four components have already been demonstrated to have no effect on reducing new HIV infections. Only the ‘S’ – safe sexual practices – truly addresses prevention and in a sufficiently vague way that it provides no clear call for changes in sexual behavior that will actually reduce transmission. Moreover, in the AIDS world, ‘safe sex’ is understood to mean condom use … the SAVE approach is more a political statement than a guide to AIDS prevention."
Mr O’Callaghan states their conclusion: "What the Churches are called to do by their theology turns out to be what works best in AIDS prevention" – by which, he says, the authors mean that the key to defeating the pandemic is to teach what the Churches have traditionally taught about sexual behaviour.
He continues: "What they (the authors) are saying, in effect, is that Christian Aid, along with many other Christian organisations, has backed the wrong horse – one based on ideology rather than epidemiology. This is a claim of momentous importance. If true (as I believe it is), it represents one of the most important social justice issues facing the Christian Church today."
Mr O’Callaghan says that he is "very conscious of the controversial nature of this material", and explains the purpose behind his letter: " … not to make a debating point, but, rather, to encourage those who are most committed to the mission of the Church to listen to evidence that is different from what they have been led to believe is the truth."
His letter concludes: "I would ask in particular those bishops who are most closely associated with the Bishops’ Appeal Fund and with Christian Aid and other mission organisations to take a close interest in this issue and to become involved as appropriate in constructive discussion on this most vital matter."
Mr O’Callaghan told the Gazette that he hoped to engage representatives of Christian Aid Ireland, including Tendai Madondo and other senior members, in a discussion which would be constructive rather than confrontational. "If we can do that", he said, "all are winners, especially those who are most at risk from HIV/AIDS.