Though it may be difficult for people who are not Catholic to understand the church and its leadership, do not think that Catholics themselves ever understand things any better. Some of us too were caught by surprise when we heard the recent news that Pope Benedict XVI had endorsed limited use of condoms (by male prostitutes). While some may see this as bizarre, it does open a door that many of us may have thought was permanently sealed at the Vatican.
A few days later, the Vatican “clarified” its position and basically said that “all” people should be able to use condoms as a way to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. In this amazing turnaround, it seems that the Vatican somehow realized that it cannot be the stalwart supporter of a “right to life” for the unborn without wanting to save the lives of those already living.
This whole business of the Pope’s opening a door shows an awareness that has been very much needed and a long time coming. As a leader of the world’s Catholics, the Pope still does have the authority and respect of many people (many non-Catholics respect him as a holy man as much as they would respect the Dalai Lama). His recognition of the realities of AIDS spread through sexual activity is a milestone for the Vatican and a crucial move toward facing the realities of the twenty-first century.
This does not mean that Catholic teenagers everywhere will start using condoms, or for that matter adults or even the male prostitutes for whom the Pope originally made this statement. Still, it does infiltrate into the common understanding of people that condoms can be used to stop the spread of a killer disease. If in the process this also stops unwanted pregnancies, then some may see that there is an additional benefit from this pronouncement.
When I heard this news, I couldn’t help thinking about a story of a young girl I knew over twenty-five years ago. As her 8th grade teacher I felt she was articulate to the point of putting college grads to shame. “Tanya” was a straight-A student, and at thirteen she had the whole world ahead of her and confessed that “I have big dreams for myself.” I had visions of her becoming anything she wanted to be, but I did imagine her becoming a doctor because of her love of science and a desire to “save the world” from everything.
Unfortunately, this young lady became pregnant. When she disappeared from my class a few months later, I learned about this from her mother. I did not see her again until graduation day when I saw her sitting on the steps of a house across the street watching her classmates in their caps and gowns as they filed into the auditorium for commencement.
Some of the kids saw her and waved, but they had their own appointments with destiny inside those doors, and they moved on. I ran across the street and sat next to her. I asked her how she was doing, and she held her swollen stomach and said, “I’m due any day now.” Tears streamed down her face and I had to fight back my own. Tanya told me how she wanted the boy to use a condom, but he told her, “I’m not wearing that. It’s against my religion.” Then this “good” Catholic boy took her virginity and impregnated her.
Here was the girl I felt would be a star, and now she sat there about to become a mother and was watching all her friends go off to get the dream she might never attain. I only had a few minutes and asked if she was well and what her plans were. She said her mother would help her raise the baby. The baby’s father ran away. He was an older boy who never graduated from high school. He had no job and no prospects and now he left her with a baby and little if any hope.
Well, I went into that auditorium that day and fought away the tears. I figured I’d never see Tanya again, but I did see her a few years later on the L train as I left a meeting in Manhattan and was going home. She sat on the train with her mother and a little boy, and she was feeding him broken cookies from a plastic bag. She recognized me and said, “Hi, Mr. L.” I sat down next to her mother and she said, “This is my son Tyrone.”
The girl was now around seventeen and did not look well. I asked her how she was doing and she cried, leaning against her mother’s arm like the little girl she used to be.
Her mom turned to me and said, “She is very sick, Mr. L. She has the AIDS.”
I looked at Tyrone, who seemed very healthy, and asked, “Is Tyrone okay?”
“Yeah,” her mom said, fighting back her own tears. “His tests come back negative so far.”
There was no way to talk about things with them like I would when I ran into other former students. I couldn’t ask her about high school because she never went to one. I couldn’t ask her about her plans for college. Anything and everything she should be looking forward to was gone.
Tanya looked up at me and wiped the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand. “You…you married yet, Mr. L?”
I couldn’t believe that she could even think about me in this situation. I just shook my head. “No, not yet.” Sometimes I thought I was too involved in my studies. I was getting a doctorate and it was consuming my time, so I was putting off the rest of my life thinking there was always tomorrow. Sitting there and listening to Tanya clarified my own mortality; I realized I didn’t have all the time in the world.
We talked about Tyrone after that. He liked the Incredible Hulk. He liked Barney and Elmo and all the things kids like. As I heard him say “More cookie” to his mother, I watched Tanya’s frail hand shake as she fed another piece to him.
I got off the train at my stop and turned to watch them through the window as the sliding doors hushed to a close. The familiar ringing sound could be heard, and through the smudged glass I saw Tyrone lean against Tanya and she against her mother. The train went on into the darkness of the tunnel, and I knew I would never see her again.
All these years later the Pope made his pronouncement, and I thought about Tanya almost immediately. Even if John Paul II (the Pope back in those days) had issued a similar edict, there would be no way of knowing if that boy would have used a condom, but it makes me wonder. I also wonder what happened to Tyrone. No doubt his grandmother raised him and maybe, just maybe, he had his mother’s innate intelligence and went on to be the doctor she never could be, working to cure AIDS and other diseases. At least that’s what I want to think.
The Pope’s endorsement surely will save lives, and that has to count for something, but it’s all too late for a girl who dreamed big and was lost to the ravages of a disease that marches on, regardless of policy, like a wildfire consuming everything in its path. Some may think what the Pope has said is too little to late, but for all the Tanyas out there and the Tyrones yet to be born, it may just save some lives and help to abate the cruelty of an illness without a consciousness that soldiers on and on.