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HIV in the Classroom: What Would a Good Catholic Do? Bioethicist Helps Students Wrestle With Theology and HIV

An Interview With Professor Robert Doyle of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles

February 21, 2013

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Your paper talks about poverty, and the ways poverty puts a person at risk for HIV transmission. And then, you have the "preferential option for the poor," which is the idea that the poor are God's people, and those people to whom we must respond. Do you feel as if there's a "preferential option" for HIV-positive people packed in there somewhere?

I think, just given the nature of how HIV/AIDS has affected impoverished people in this country, we can make the case that there ought to be preferential options for the poor with HIV/AIDS, because it is a disease that, without proper treatment and access to drugs, is deadly. Those groups that don't have access to those lifesaving treatments are the ones we should certainly pay attention to.

What do you think theologians can bring to the HIV/AIDS conversation that isn't' there right now?


This notion of solidarity is really something that theologians, many of us in the Catholic tradition, talk about quite frequently. It breaks down this "us vs. them" mentality. I think that's one of the principles we can bring to the conversation.

We can also bring the notion of breaking down stereotypes, breaking down barriers, breaking down misconceptions of teachings so that we understand that there are really no teachings that say, "We ought not to treat people with HIV/AIDS." That's in line with solidarity, but it's a separate piece.

A theology class on HIV is not something that people often think of. Religion is so important to so many people, but then there are some people who are not on board with organized religion.

Offering a class like this is extremely important, because it allows us to have discussions that students may not otherwise have in relation to HIV/AIDS, from a theological standpoint. As I mentioned, oftentimes there are instances where religions have been used to harm people with HIV/AIDS -- not physically, but perhaps by not reaching out to them the best they could. I think a class like this can highlight what the teachings actually say.

One of the things I do love about theology is that it's applicable in a lot of different situations. You talk in your paper about distribution of resources; in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Economic Justice for All, they talk a lot about redistribution of resources. In this instance, it applies to pharmaceutical companies, or even just the way we manage health in this country. How do you think, generally, theology can respond to health care issues?

"When those who are least off are taken care of, we all benefit -- a notion that I think is quite foreign to us in this country."

I think theology offers the principles that we've talked about, but there's another principle called "the common good," which recognizes that we all ought to be making contributions to the good of everyone. Sometimes, that may mean that some of us have to give up a little bit or pay a little bit extra, to help those that may not have access to some of those drugs. So, by distributing drugs to those who are poor, I think it actually contributes to this overall notion of the common good. When those who are least off are taken care of, we all benefit -- a notion that I think is quite foreign to us in this country.

You start your paper off with a lot of data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: There are 300 million people in the U.S., and about 1.2 million of them are living with HIV, so it's about 1 in every 222 people. If you break it down, that 222 people can pay for one person's medication; it won't be a huge burden on everyone.

I think principles like "the common good," or "solidarity," recognize that decisions such as access to drugs ought not to just be economic. We have a duty, based on our human dignity, to provide those drugs to those in need.

Can you explain "structural sin"? This notion is part of the health care conversation, but it's not a term you hear every day.

"Structural sin" is the idea that the structures we have in place take care of those who already have access to those systems. An example of structural sin is that there's nothing within our health care system right now that provides for those who have the least access. This structure we have, just by the way it works, ignores those who need access to care the most. Particularly with HIV/AIDS, it's definitely worth examining how we can change those structures to provide for those who need drugs or access to care and allow them to flourish.

Can you talk about "human flourishing," and what you think are the structures in place that stop human flourishing?

"This structure we have, just by the way it works, ignores those who need access to care the most."

It's connected to that idea of the common good. We "flourish" -- and there are a lot of definitions of the word flourish here, but you can imagine what it means to flourish as a human -- when we have those things that allow us to best achieve our capabilities. Health is one of those. When we are healthy, we flourish. And the notion of the common good helps with that flourishing.

In line with solidarity, we are moving closer to this idea of taking care of one another. It ties into the idea of structural sin. When there's a structural sin in that someone cannot afford drugs, then they can't flourish, because they're not healthy. They're all sort of tied in together in that notion. The "common good" is that umbrella term that creates the system where we can all flourish.

As we wind down this interview, is there anything that you'd like to say, or you'd like our readers to know?

The interesting thing, and one of your questions alluded to this, is that theology and religions can actually have a positive role to play in breaking down some of the barriers that still exist in relation to HIV/AIDS, and by having conversations like this -- not just jumping to the conclusion that religion and theology should be excluded from the conversation about HIV, but actually inviting theologians to the table to have conversations about HIV/AIDS -- can actually be beneficial.

Read other articles in this spotlight series.

This transcript was lightly edited for clarity.

Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for and

Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.

Copyright © 2013 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.
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This article was provided by TheBody.
See Also
HIV in the Classroom: A Spotlight Series
More on Roman Catholicism and HIV/AIDS


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