God, AIDS, Africa & HOPE

pensée of a Catholic priest

20.12.2009 The Church’s Dilemma in the face of HIV and AIDS

An interesting article from Fr. Joseph,which I found on the net…

XVII INTERNATIONAL AIDS CONFERENCE 2008
ECUMENICAL PRE-CONFERENCE ON AIDS MEXICO CITY

Reflection on informed decision-making as a strategy for the church in the light of the HIV and AIDS Crisis

FR. JOSEPH MPINGANJIRA

‘And just to conclude, listen to these words: “over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, even if necessary against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. This emphasis on the individual, whose conscience confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups.” These were words by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the present Pope Benedict XVI, expressing very clearly what it means to say that conscience is the highest moral authority’. Christians in Africa have come to identify with the Church more when the church leaders and institutions talk about issues affecting them in their day-to-day life and when they (church leaders and institutions) become engaged in real life questions. Nobody can deny that HIV and AIDS is a world crisis, more so in my continent of Africa, south of the Sahara, my home region. It is a crisis in my country and painfully so, a crisis in my family. As a priest I have personally come face to face with this crisis losing two sisters, a brother, three nephews and four nieces. I have lost friends and people I have dearly served as a priest. These have left children some of whom I know are HIV positive. I still have so many relatives and friends. Some of them are aware that they are HIV positive, some are aware that they are HIV negative and some are HIV (status) ignorant. Most of these are faithful to each other as couples. Some of them are abstaining. As a priest and a friend I encourage them to do so because these principles offer the surest possible protection against HIV infection, even if their attainment seems difficult. But there is another reality that the church ought to face. The response to the epidemic has sometimes been compromised with moral issues. When it comes to the pastoral response to this crisis the church ought to come to terms with the reality. The fight against HIV and AIDS should be approached as a whole, namely, the care, treatment as well as prevention. There is already a lot that the church is doing in terms of care and treatment. As a priest from Malawi, Africa, I believe that each individual as created by God has a right to care, to treatment and the right to prevent oneself. I also believe that each individual has the right to information on HIV and AIDS, information on care, treatment as well as information on prevention on the same and thereby come up with well-informed decision. When it comes to prevention it is not a hidden truth that all the known three, namely, Abstinence, Be faithful and Condom (ABC) are there and working. The fact that we in the church circles advocate for the A and B does not necessarily mean that the C does not work. It does. It becomes easier for some ‘good’ Theologians sitting in big conferences discussing these issues and condemn the C.
In the years leading up to 2005 The Episcopal Conference Malawi discussed sensitively about the problem. In general, they tend to recognize the importance and legitimacy of sexual activity for a discordant couple. They have also brought out the importance of safeguarding the health of one’s partner in marriage, underscoring that marriage does not give one the right to endanger the health of a spouse in any way. But what they have even stressed most is that conscience is the ultimate moral rule and that the couple must act on the basis of what their conscience tells them is correct in their circumstances. This message was put in their (Bishops’) documents that were presented for the Ad Limina visit at the Vatican in 2005. No clear response as a guiding principle was given to them except the teaching of Humanea Vitae (especially § 14). From the Ad Limina visit, like the case before the visit, each Bishop has gone back and presents his own message to the people he is shepherding. Double messages have sometimes been sent thereby confusing people. In some cases some leaders have opted to remain silent on some ways of preventing or controlling HIV and AIDS but have expected an end of the pandemic.
The truth of the matter is that HIV and AIDS has not brought about a sense of immorality, but has rather highlighted existing moral challenges in within our society. The crisis has highlighted cultural practices that churches ought to address. Other issues are: the frequency of multiple partnerships, psychological and financial coercion to have sexual intercourse, the early sexual activity of the young and lack of proper sexuality education, the prevalence of sexual violence by intimate partner, etc. As a pastor doing my pastoral duties in a parish I see these issues differently. I am aware that there is a ‘law’ (teaching) in the church which says ‘no to use of condom’. I am also aware that I am a pastor who has been sent there not to break the ‘law’, but as a pastor I will sometimes do what Jesus did in Mark 3:1-6, namely to ‘break the law’ for the sake of letting some brothers and sisters out there ‘live their life to the full’. The use of C for discordant couples, for instance, is a method that has to be openly taught as a way to prevent oneself; it is a way that I will share with my sisters, my brothers, etc, so that some of them ‘may have life’. If as a pastor I cannot remove the pain from these poor ones of Yahweh, then the least I can do is never to add a gram of pain to their conscience by insisting on the wholesale condemnation to the use of Condoms with contradicting messages.
Moral discussions on the use of condom and other contraceptives as taught in the Humanae Vitae should not be confused with the use of condom in the above case. The teaching of Humanae Vitae based on the intention of God in procreation is not to be applied in the situation of HIV and AIDS. It is not a question of: when to have sex or not but rather life or death (in some instances). In other words, old answers are no longer relevant for the new questions that we have today in the face on HIV and AIDS pandemic. I am aware that some parents and religious leaders have expressed the fear that the discussion of how HIV transmission can be prevented, risk-reducing factors and similar matters with the inclusion of the C might provoke among people the very sexual behaviour that the church seeks to check. This could indeed happen if the information being provided is not positive and prudent. But it would be equally unethical to deny people the desirable alternatives of abstinence and fidelity or indeed deny people information on measures that would protect them against possible HIV infection. A couple where both are HIV negative will not sit in the house and say, “My wife there is HIV out there. We must be careful. We must use condoms to protect ourselves.” NO! What they will say is, “My wife there is HIV out there. We must be careful. We must be faithful to one another.” On the other hand a couple where one is (or both are) HIV positive, will sit and say, “My wife I am (or we are) HIV positive, let us prevent each other. Let’s use a condom. Should I not share this information (for a well-informed decision) with a clear conscience with the people I pray with, the people I serve in the church that I call mine? Many priests and other church leaders that I work with believe that Conscience is an issue of special relevance to the ethical challenges that the AIDS pandemic raises in relation to sexuality.
The Catholic Catechism teaches that conscience must be informed and moral judgement enlightened (1783). It does not stress the teaching role of the church in the formation of conscience but asserts, “In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path” (1785). “The Word of God is a light for our path. We must assimilate it in faith and prayer, and put it into practice. This is how our conscience is formed” (1802). And how many times have nuns, who are doing a very wonderful job in so many of our clinics, helped patients and clients and at the end have told these patients and clients that they (nuns and their institutions) are not allowed to give out condoms but that they go to the next institution where they can get them. All this points to the gap between policy and practice with regard to informed decision-making. Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgement in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgement that departs from them (1799). Nevertheless, a human being must always obey the certain judgement of his conscience (1800). This has been true before HIV and AIDS came and will be true after pandemic is gone. And just to conclude, listen to these words: “over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, even if necessary against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority. This emphasis on the individual, whose conscience confronts him with a supreme and ultimate tribunal, and one which in the last resort is beyond the claim of external social groups.” These were words by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the present Pope Benedict XVI, expressing very clearly what it means to say that conscience is the highest moral authority.
Statements for discussion Ecumenical pre-conference workshop informed decision-making
1) The gap between policy and practice with regard to informed decision-making isn’t a problem as in daily practice (health) people practice – informed decision making-
2) While the church is “a champion” in care and cure it is can be an obstacle in prevention.
3) Informed decision-making is the solution for the Church dilemma’s in prevention.

Joseph J. Mpinganjira

Diocese of Lilongwe,

P. O. Box 631, Lilongwe, Malawi

Filed under: HIV and AIDS, HIV Prevention, Reflection, Society and living environment, , , , , , , , , ,

2 Responses - Comments are closed.

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HIV, AIDS and HOPE – thoughts of a Catholic priest

Being a Roman - Catholic priest and working in the fields of HIV and AIDS in Africa is often a challenge. Living in Africa has also its challenges. On the other hand I feel very much blessed having all the three. So you will find stories and reflections about my work, about the church, South Africa and Africa and essential information and developments in the field of HIV and AIDS. And in between personal stories and thoughts. You are most welcome to leave a comment or to get in touch with me - blogs - "thinking loud" so to speak is a ways of communication and exchange of ideas.

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