God, AIDS, Africa & HOPE

Reflections / Gedanken

Right to life or death penalty?

Stefan Hippler

Right to life or death penalty?  – The contradictions in Catholic moral teachings

How does your church react to the pandemic? What guidance does it give? What measures does it recommend? What is it doing? These are the kind of question Catholic priests are likely to face in the era of HIV/Aids. In theological terms, the Church has no official, defined teaching on the question of HIV/Aids: there are still no answers to the fundamental challenge we are facing. So far a few cautious inferences have been voiced with reference to Church teachings, manifesting the immense gulf between theory and practice. They do not equip the pastor with spiritual tools but more likely drive him to struggles of conscience.

When it comes to care for Aids patients and those affected by it, the Roman Catholic Church is at the forefront. Many consecrated women and men literally sacrifice themselves in the service of suffering people. In many developing countries it is in particular Catholic establishments that carry the greatest load in supporting the Aids-affected because state institutions often are overextended. Many Church leaders around the world have emphasised this service to humanity. My home diocese of Trier pointed out as early as the 1980s that it is an ancient obligation that the Church must stand in solidarity with the suffering and the dying. The diocese stressed that any form of discrimination or stigmatization of HIV-positive people is unchristian. Some theologians even refer to the Body of Christ as having Aids, thereby creating a way to view the disease theologically.

These brave notions stand in contrast to the rigidity and ignorance of many bishops and priests who are still not prepared to tackle the issue of HIV/Aids. Some of them even deny that the disease is a problem in their dioceses. Their resistance ranges from the pious observation that Aids is a punishment from God to a priest asking an HIV-positive parishioner to leave his congregation. Those in charge of the Church are intimidated by HIV, Aids and the implicit association with sexuality. They don’t want to confront these issues because to do so they must enter the minefield of moral theology.
The Church teaches that sexuality belongs in marriage, and only in marriage. It may be practised only in a life-long partnership between a man and a woman who remain faithful to each other. Everything else – premarital sex, homosexuality, multiple partners, one-night stands, cohabitation, polygamy – is sinful. Within the institution of marriage, sexuality was reduced to the dictum of the Church Father St Augustine who taught that every sex act must be open to procreation. Artificial contraception is regarded illicit with reference to the encyclical Humanae vitae, issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968. In an official handbook for confessors, approved in 1997 by Pope John Paul II, the late Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, then prefect of the Pontifical Council for the Family, emphasised the unequivocal teaching authenticity of Humanae vitae: “The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable.” And God wills this regulation, according to the pope as the supreme guardian and teacher of the magisterium. The will of the Almighty permits no discussion, and accordingly there are no ways of dispensing believers from it. Thus millions of people become sinners because they live in defiance of God’s will as defined by the Vatican. And so they must bear the consequences of their godless behaviour, at least as far as fundamentalist theologians are concerned.

Among the proscribed artificial instruments of contraception are condoms. These are, as we know, the only effective means of preventing the exchange of bodily fluids during sexual acts. The Church’s teaching on condoms, still controversial and puzzling to many, refers solely to procreation, but extends now to questions of life and death. The moral theologian Carlo Caffarra – now archbishop of Bologna – in 1989 even called for an end to sexual activity within marriages in which one partner is HIV-positive. Our Church held on to that approach for years. Only a few bishops dared to invoke the difference between protection and procreation of life.

The Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels pleaded for the use of prophylactics when one spouse is infected. “Otherwise one sin – breaking the sixth commandment (Thou shalt not commit adultery) – is compounded by another sin, breaking the fifth commandment (Thou shalt not kill).” The German theologian Professor Johannes Reiter called for condoms to be tolerated in some cases as“disaster prevention”. But such ideas have failed to penetrate the centre of the Vatican. Perhaps the Vatican’s new doctrinal study into the use of condoms in the fight against Aids commissioned by Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán will usher in a change; it reportedly has been circulated already to Pope Benedict XVI and the doctrinal congregation. Cardinal Barragán was the Vatican’s de facto health minister, and he has exercised his mind for some time on the question of whether marital condom use can be licit on the grounds of self-defence when one partner is infected.
As things stand, there is no deviation from the official teachings of the Church. Indeed, the 1968 Königsberg Declaration in which the German bishops emphasised spouses’ freedom of conscience is at risk of being withdrawn so as not to impugn on papal primacy. It seems that papal infallibility is being virtually expanded to include pronouncements which have not been issued ex cathedra, i.e. the official decisions declared by the pontiff in college with the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit which are to be regarded as infallible. So people with HIV, who already have sinned, must now also accept that the only available method of protection for their partners is proscribed. Those who use condoms commit one sin on top of another. Of course there is an alternative: abstinence.

But doesn’t our Church teach that celibacy is a gift from God and not intended for every one?

There is a big contradiction in the teachings of our Church: in its support for and care of those with Aids, the Church is a leading light, but at the same time it also contributes to the discrimination of these people. It seems perfectly schizophrenic to call people to a full life with intimacy in holy matrimony, and then deny infected people that intimacy. Catholic moral teaching places the right to life at its centre. But then it puts people who follow that teaching at risk of infection by a deadly virus. The ultimate tragedy resides in our Church’s refusal to reconcile the principles of its moral theology with the insights from sociology, psychology, sexual research and other social sciences. I would add my perception that the Church lacks in humility – the humility to realise that all human knowledge is like patchwork, that nobody has a monopoly on all truth. That’s why the Church does not perceive HIV/Aids as a Sign of the Times, one that not only questions the conduct of individuals, but also that of the Church in its totality. In theological terms, I see the suffering and dying of Aids-infected brothers and sisters as a cry from God. The Church, the Body of Christ, is infected with the virus, and in that body there are only those who suffer and those who suffer with them.
But, one might demur, is it really that important what the Church thinks and does in these permissive times? Does it still have a substantial role to play in global terms? There are so many other churches, congregations and faith movements, and many people have abandoned religious traditions altogether and believe in nothing. That objection is easily rebutted: the Catholic Church has 1,2 billion members. It is the biggest cohesive religious community in the world. As the world’s largest institution it could fight against HIV/Aids like no other. It really could – if only it wanted to.

Translation from:
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Hardcover: 207 pages  –  Publisher: Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH (August 31, 2007)
Language: German  –  ISBN-10: 3462039253  –  ISBN-13: 978-3462039252
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Paperback  – Bastei – Luebbe  –
Language: German  –  ISBN-10: 3404606159  –  ISBN-13: 978-3404606153

Filed under: General, HIV and AIDS, HIV Prevention, HIV Treatment, HOPE Cape Town Association & Trust, HOPE Cape Town Trust, Medical and Research, Networking, Politics and Society, Reflection, Society and living environment, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

One Response - Comments are closed.

  1. Stephen Korsman says:

    To say that HIV+ married couples (with one infected) should simply not have sex because to do so is tantamount to attempted murder is absurd.

    Some have acknowledged that the principle of double effect comes into play here – condoms prevent spread of HIV, and fewer pregnancies are a secondary, unintended, and often undesired, consequence. In reply to that some have gone to the extreme that this destroys the unity of marriage, which is not an emotional bond, but requires mucosal contact. Absurd too.

    Most who permit condoms under double effect only permit it where one partner is infected – they argue that when both are infected it no longer matters, and so no double effect applies. They ignore the risk of re-infection. Re-infection – where an HIV-infected person gets infected with a second strain of HIV – has been shown to speed up the disease process, and is potentially disastrous where one partner is on ARVs and develops resistance – that person’s partner is then at risk of acquiring additional resistant HIV even though they are not on ARVs. That is something virologists know but most moral theologians aren’t aware of. Someone needs to tell Cardinal Barragán’s commission that if they don’t already know.

HIV, Development and HOPE – thoughts of a Catholic priest

Being a Roman - Catholic priest and working in the fields of HIV and social development in Africa has its challenges. You will find stories and reflections about my work, about the church, South Africa and Africa, about politics and whatever triggers my interest. You are most welcome to leave a comment or to get in touch with me. Blogging means to initiate thoughts and discussions and for the writer to formulate what is loosely running around in the heart and mind in need of being sorted and spoken out.

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