God, AIDS, Africa & HOPE

Reflections / Gedanken

Don’t be afraid

Stefan Hippler

Don’t be afraid – On faith and truth

Science and religion are not in conflict but complement one another. That’s what I often hear from the Vatican, and Pope Benedict XVI keeps amplifying it. He emphasised this especially in his controversial address at Regensburg University in 2006. I am utterly convinced that this principle is entirely valid. There is place for both science and faith. Indeed, they need each other to serve humanity. And that is exactly what the Church strives to accomplish: to serve God and humanity, as God and charity command it. There is no love for God without love for humanity, and vice versa. To love humanity is to love the source of all human life: God. It means that, within its powers, our Church has to guide people to salvation. I am convinced that this is possible only if in that purpose we seek the truth – without truth there can be no service of and in love.

Presumably every theologian concurs on that point. But then the questions come in. Who owns the truth? Who can act for it?

We Christians profess that in Jesus Christ the profound truth of God became flesh. As followers of Jesus we try to understand and follow that truth. And because every religion claims to own the truth, we must be careful with it – because God alone is the truth. We can discern it only within the scope of our own human limitations. We are constrained. We perennially try to arrive at that truth and to understand it. But whoever claims to have the absolute truth and backs that assertion by reference to God is blocking their way to actually finding it. God always lets Himself be found anew. Every day we have an opportunity to discover a new facet to the reason for our being and to our destiny. But for that we also need science. And scientific pursuit itself intends nothing else but to reach a comprehension of the nature and contexts of our world. Science seeks to understand creation, which, according to St Paul in his Letter to the Romans, is still in its birth pangs and keeps developing. As Christians we profess that the Holy Spirit blows where it wants, and in Isaiah 55:8, God tells us: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”

The history of our Church is replete with errors, and if we look at the many mistakes and foibles of our popes, cardinals, bishops, priests and theologians over almost two millennia, then we discover – let’s be honest about it – many sins. If we count all the skeletons in our ecclesial cupboard we may get a sense of why Pope John Paul II delivered his mea culpae for the Catholic Church in the Jubilee Year 2000.

To follow the lead of the Holy Spirit, we need this humility, this admission of failures, this acknowledgment of our own human unworthiness. This humility prevails over fear, particularly the anxieties of our Church leaders when they become conscious of their responsibilities. This humility also illuminates God’s loving mercy, his unconditional love for us. This humility gives the Church its human face, because it not only accepts its shortcomings but also lets its believers go their own way of faith in the Church. And this humility encourages theologians to carry out their studies and allow debate which will lead to a deeper understanding of the truth.

It has nothing to do with relativism. On the contrary: we relativise God’s truth when we shut the doors to new insights and assume that we already know everything. We mustn’t diminish God, but always be open to His gift of a deeper understanding.

This does not imply that I am defying the teaching authority of the Church, but it can and must allow tussles over the truth. Revelation and scriptural texts are the fundamentals in that, but they must be scrutinised with all the new scientific insights at our disposal, because the aim of science – albeit acting on a different stimulus – also is to find the truths of the world.

In a discussion on ethical questions, a moral theologian once pointed out that most recent papal writings take no account of recent scholarship. Papal predecessors are cited at length, but it is almost as though after St Augustine and St Thomas of Aquinas, both the official Church and natural science ceased to develop. I would like someone to explain to me why there has been no noteworthy development in certain areas of sexual morality since the Middle Ages. Why do modern papal instructions on that subject tend to echo the spirit of medieval theology? Of course it is true that a pope can’t know everything himself. But where in the Vatican are the qualified consultants who might examine papal statements with a critical eye before they are published?

The moral theologian I mentioned earlier asked me at the end of our conversation with some irritation: “Do you actually still read what Rome puts out?” Yes, I do read it. And there’s much that fills me with anxiety. I would do the Church no service if I weren’t concerned. Reading Vatican statements aids the formation of my conscience. But ultimately I must follow my conscience.

One document that really sickened concerned the admission of homosexual men to priestly ordination. I concede, the instruction could have been worse. But it raises a few issues which may give substance to my rather theoretical deliberations thus far. The instruction, which spooked around the Vatican for years, speaks of “incidents” which necessitated its publication. Everybody knows that this is a reference to the cases of pedophilia which have shaken the Church so much over the past few years. But the notion of linking pedophilia with homosexuality is by the standards of contemporary scientific knowledge simply inadmissible. Indeed, it immediately discredits the statement.

The authors of the instruction refer to a “homosexual tendency”. Whatever one may think about homosexuality, it is more than a tendency. That is a matter of established academic consensus. Homosexuality is a trait which is neither sought nor chosen. So why are terms and descriptions being used that create an impression of a Church that still resists the facts?

Of course, the Church has every right to set criteria for those it will admit into its services. Every organisation and institution has that right, provided it does not violate human rights or valid laws. But the Church ought to resist the temptation to ascribe these arguments to God or to use confusing or inflammatory terminology instead of trying to elicit understanding for its position.

A theology professor once warned me: “Be careful! Nobody who wants to go far in the Church can afford to voice this kind criticism – it could cost him his position.” I don’t occupy a theological teaching post and have no career ambitions. My concern is that we Church people serve people, to serve them more and better. I do not wish to pronounce a new model or manifesto. Nothing I am saying in this volume is set in stone for me. I am moved by questions, doubts, and the search for answers to do justice to God, the Church and the people.

I have experienced for years how much good the Catholic Church, my beloved home, can do. And I also experience how people are despairing at the prevailing teachings which serve to stigmatize them, particular in the field of HIV/Aids. As a representative of the Church I wish I had the strength to cope with the conflict between the teachings and the suffering of the people – and to overcome it. The people I work with in the Aids orphanages and clinics are my brothers and sisters; I experience my encounters with them as encounters with the Risen One. “What you did unto the least of them, you have done unto me” (Matthew 25:40). And I try to act according to an original principle of the Church: vox populi, vox dei – the voice of the people is God’s voice.

The daily condition of being exposed to human suffering is what differentiates most priests from the high-ranking dignitaries in the Church who know the grassroots reality mostly only second-hand. This is not a reproach, but an assertion of fact: those who occupy leadership positions generally have little time or opportunity to be in touch with life on the grassroots. It is therefore important that those who advice the Church on existential decisions be acquainted with the realities of daily life. The teaching office is also an office of service, serving God and His people. It requires courage and humility, clarity and transparency – and a lot if trust in God. These characteristics form the prerequisites for a fearless discourse in our Church, one in which all questions are allowed. But absolutely all questions…

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, 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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