God, AIDS, Africa & HOPE

pensée of a Catholic priest

Mercy before law

Bartholomäus Grill

Mercy before law – How five German bishops formed a view of the pandemic in South Africa

The bishops don’t seem to be comfortable. They have just arrived from their dioceses in Germany and now find themselves in the grim township of Mfuleni on the Cape Flats. Earlier, as they walked through the waiting rooms in the day clinic, mothers were holding out their sick children towards them. To the observer it seemed as though the distinguished visitors were somewhat concerned that by touching these children they might catch something. Now the five bishops and their entourage are listening to a brief introduction which seems to make some of them a little nervous, because the priest addressing them is being quite frank. He is referring to clinical trials with microbicides which women apply to their vaginas to protect themselves for HIV. He is speaking about oral sex, with which young people circumvent the demands of pre-marital abstinence. He is talking about African naturopathy and traditional healers who must be integrated in the fight against the disease, and he tells them that he himself is an honorary sangoma and that he had himself circumcised. And he lectures at length about one protective measure which most Church leaders hesitate to bring up. “We show people how to use condoms. As a priest I could not justify telling them: ‘You may not’.”

That Catholic priest is Stefan Hippler, and he is introducing HOPE Cape Town. He had prepared himself thoroughly for this morning’s presentation. After all, it doesn’t happen every day that five German bishops visit a South African township to learn more about HIV/Aids and its terrible effects. Hippler invited these men of God, a singular opportunity to acquaint them with the stark realities. He speaks bluntly and with great passion. The Aids ribbon on his lapel seems like the insignia of an officer in a military campaign against the disease. On the wall behind Hippler a board meticulously records the distribution of condoms at the day clinic over the past 12 months. It even registers the target figure – 16,306 prophylactics per month. “And yet, so far we have failed,” Hippler concedes. “All our education efforts have failed to meet our goals; prevalence is increasing.”

The statistics from Mfuleni confirm the extent of the crisis. Some 85,000 people live here in cramped conditions. Unemployment stands at 60%, the tuberculosis rate is 30%, and 80% regularly take drugs such as tik (methamphetamines), mandrax or high potency alcohol. The official rape statistics are extremely high; the unofficial numbers are even higher. The virus can spread almost unchecked in that kind of environment. About 30% of men and 45% of women (think about it for a second: forty-five percent) are HIV-infected.

“I would like to tell people in good conscience and with the backing of the Church: ‘You may protect yourselves’,” Hippler reiterates. “People are suffering from Church prescriptions about what they may and may not do…we are creating misery. We are complicit when people infect themselves.”

A German-born bishop from Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, who is escorting his German counterparts, listens to all of this and then rises to speak. “What are we supposed to do with condoms? You are talking nonsense,” he says angrily. A short silence follows. From the room next door we can hear the whimpering of an infant. It is as though an old Catholic ghost is floating in the room: heresy.

Delegation leader Dr Ludwig Schick, Archbishop of Bamberg in Bavaria, chooses his words carefully, but he is taking the same line as his incensed brother bishop. The discussion cannot be reduced to condoms, he cautions, that’s just a side aspect. “Condoms won’t solve the problem, they are not a formula to avoid the spread of Aids,” Archbishop Schick says. “The actual causes must be fought against: poverty, inadequate education, deficient hygiene, deficient medical care…and also moral error.” The archbishop’s analysis sounds downright revolutionary, but one suspects that he really wanted to get off the subject of condoms, that anathema of Catholic teaching.

A consultor in the delegation later says that in “this matter” Africans have to decide for themselves. “We should not and may not interfere. That would be a new form of colonialism.” What audacious justifications we devise to absolve ourselves from responsibility! Evidently the consultor was unaware that a few years earlier the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference had relaxed the policy on condoms as a means of HIV prevention within marriage. Their pastoral letter “A Message of Hope”, adopted in July 2001, allowed spouses to use “appropriate means” to protect themselves from infection. And these appropriate means are made of rubber.

So on this autumn morning there is privation, violence and vulnerability on the outside, and inside hand-wringing balking and reality-dodging. There it is again, that old fear that the dam will break should moral teachings be liberalised. One could call it the Gorbachev Syndrome, after the man who wanted to reform Soviet communism but instead presided over the demise of the Red Empire.

Oh, if only Catholics were as daring as the Anglicans, and more courageous like their shepherds, such as Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of Cape Town, whom the German delegation wants to meet with. At the height of apartheid, The Arch – as the locals fondly call him – put up a Black Madonna in the magnificent neo-Gothic St George’s Cathedral. Just behind the Mother of Mercy, the visitor can admire colourful tapestries which depict how early and resolutely the Anglican Church joined the fight against the disease. And in front, at the entrance, there are brochures with explicit information about HIV/Aids, including images of female and male sex organs affected by sexually transmitted diseases. It is unthinkable that such realistic illustrations would find their way into a Catholic church – in the eyes of the chief ideologues, that is indecent, indeed, dirty. Something like that can’t be shown. The hang-ups are so powerful that eyes are averted from these images. And so one also pushes aside the suffering to which these pictures testify.

But back to Mfuleni, to that memorable meeting with the bishops which is at risk of turning into a lesson about the self-inflicted dilemma of the institutional Church until Gerhard Pieschl, the Bishop of Limburg, raises his hand. He is generally regarded to be on the conservative side of things, but here he shows empathy with Stefan Hippler’s case. “Mercy comes before the law,” Bishop Pieschl explains, “and because of that there must be a way that our Church can differentiate for the good of the people.” To the amusement of the assembly, he adds: “Am I going to end up on the stake now?”

As the visitors walk through the slum, looking into its humble shacks and chatting with their residents, Bishop Leo Schwarz of Trier says something else which gives me hope: “These people must know all the option and decide according to their conscience.” He evidently has taken to heart the earlier plea from Fr Hippler: “I ask you to think more about these questions… We must overcome the fear that we might say something wrong. I can say it, because I don’t want to become a bishop.”

Translation from the book:
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, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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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