AIDS, like abortion, seems to have divided the religious community along conservative and liberal lines. One might suppose, in a reasonably rational society, that the increasing availability of contraceptives would reduce the incidence of abortion. However, in the United States at least, abortion has risen dramatically with the availability of contraceptives. Similarly, one might have expected the rise of AIDS to have reinforced traditional moralists in the churches, especially with respect to homosexual practices. Instead, many of the so-called mainstream churches use AIDS as an incentive to plead for greater tolerance and understanding, not so much for those who practice homosexuality but for the practice itself and for the world and life view that endorses it.

Volker Eids, a member of the Catholic Theological Faculty at the University of Bamberg, Germany, calls AIDS “a challenge to rethink [traditional sexual morality].” Eids does not want to change fundamental Roman Catholic moral teachings, but he does want to change the attitude towards homosexuals and homosexuality: “It is necessary to come away from received habits of attributing guilt and of prejudices.” Eids appears to be the most traditionally minded writer in a collection entitled Black Angst: Living with AIDS (Stuttgart, 1989). His Protestant homologue, psychologist and lay theologian S.R. Dunde, who is on the board of several AIDS-related organizations, speaks about “the transformation of hatred for the sickness into hatred for the sick,” and says that “freedom of pleasure” (Lustfreiheit) is a mechanism to incite hatred (Hassauslöser).

Dr. Dunde’s invective scores the churches, church members, and Christians generally as though they were using AIDS as a pretext for hating homosexuals and intravenous drug users. Even a superficial reading of the AIDS-related literature in Germany reveals so much invective against churches and religious institutions in general that it might indeed be correct to call AIDS a Hassauslöser, but one that incites hatred for the church, not on the part of the church. A typical conservative Christian response to AIDS is that of Pastor Hermann Mittendorfer of Stuttgart, who writes, “The disease AIDS calls for renewed reflection on the relationship between love, trust, long-term partnership, and marriage. . . . Without moralistic finger-pointing, we want people to think about the meaning of faithfulness as a constructive value.”

In general, the Protestant churches of Germany have reacted to AIDS by totally forgetting any and all traditional Christian teaching with respect to sexual morality and replacing it with a number of Pollyannaish recommendations on the order of “wash your hands after using the toilet.” Thus Pastors Gerhard Gericke and Dr. Hans-George Wiedemann of Düsseldorf prepared these suggestions for confirmation classes (for fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds):

It is important to talk openly with future sex partners about sexuality—as well as about what one has already experienced in this area. “Going to bed with each other” should be preceded by a longer period of getting acquainted. “Disco-style” behavior is frivolous and usually frustrating. . . . Intensively tender forms of sexuality (cuddling, caressing, nonaggressive kissing, petting to climax) should be discovered (anew). Masturbation is not dangerous even in the company of one’s partner. . . . Every one of us is responsible for his own health, if he can do anything for it, and equally for the health of others.

No doubt Pastors Gericke and Wiedemann would be delighted to have Dr. Ruth elected as the first woman bishop in the German Lutheran church, her “religious preference” notwithstanding. When a German opinion survey indicated that 29 percent of those surveyed felt that AIDS has at least had the benefit of curtailing excessive sexual freedom, and the minister of health of North Rhine Westphalia called their attitude “cynical and abhorrent,” Wiedemann regretted that the church had not made a similar condemnation of such reactionary and unloving attitudes.

With most varieties of conduct that clearly contribute to disease, the churches and the rest of society do not spare their moral strictures. It is certainly fair to say that once cigarette smoking was definitely shown to be a causative factor in lung disease, the churches joined with the rest of society in uttering moralistic advice against smoking. Why is there no such reaction with respect to what is now the most horrible sexually transmitted disease, AIDS?

A theological study from the now-defunct German Democratic Republic puts forward the interesting view that the supposed African origin of AIDS—endorsed by one of the discoverers of the AIDS virus. Dr. Robert Gallo—as well as the evidence that AIDS has been disseminated in the United States by persons of Haitian origin have been, if not trumped up, at least trumpeted abroad in the service of Western colonialism and racism. Ehrhart Neubert concludes his study Between Fear and Attraction (Berlin, 1989) with the rather strange accusation that “many churches bear part responsibility, because of their silence, for the fear that has spread across the world more rapidly than the virus itself” He continues with the rather strange, obviously false quotation (without a footnote): “Because people are affected by AIDS without respect to their race, class, sex, or age, as well as their sexual preferences and relationships [emphasis added], this disease challenges us to question our fears and our discriminatory behavior.” Neubert’s attitude is rather typical of the ecclesiastical establishment: although they formally acknowledge that the “high-risk behavior” which the churches have traditionally condemned leads to AIDS, they then immediately deny what they have just admitted and argue that this “knowledge” requires the churches to revise their traditional negative attitudes towards such behavior.

If AIDS were really a “disease like any other,” the connection between AIDS and specific forms of activity would lead the churches to join health officials and society in advising against it. Instead, they all join in a chorus to say that that is precisely what one must not do. One is reminded of St. John’s prophecy in Revelation, after a description of three plagues that kill a third of mankind: “And the rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent . . . they did not repent of their murders nor of their sorceries nor of their immorality nor of their thefts.”