God, AIDS, Africa & HOPE

Reflections / Gedanken

How human may Jesus be?

Stefan Hippler

How human may Jesus be? – Why our Church reacts too slowly to major challenges

I would like to begin this chapter with a report on the Vatican Radio’s German service. It deals with an issue that appears to be remote from the subject matter of this book. But if we look closely, we will see that it not only touches on the issues before us, but also belongs to the same theological problem area. But back to the radio report.

“Today a full meeting of the International Theological Commission is deliberating in the Vatican,” the commentator informs us. The main topic is unexpected: the state of children who die un-baptised. The question arises to the background of the assumption, held by the Church for nearly two millennia, that only those people who on earth believed in Jesus Christ will see the face of God. Un-baptised babies hadn’t believed in Christ (because they couldn’t), the report points out. But because they were sinless, they would be in a state of eternal bliss – but not in the company of God. The report says that in light of new theological studies, this belief has become disputable. Next we hear the commission’s general-secretary, the Jesuit Luis Ladaria, who explains what is the Church saying in the case of unbaptized children who have died: “There is no Catholic doctrine that is binding. We know that during many centuries it was thought that children went to limbo, where they enjoyed a natural happiness, but they did not have the vision of God. Because of recent developments, not only theological but also of the magisterium, this belief is in crisis today. We, thus, are now studying this problem knowing that it is a point upon which there has not been a definitive pronouncement.” Whatever the case, however, God’s desire to lead all people to redemption applies, as do Christ’s mediation and the sacraments of the Church in God’s salvation plan. Ladaria continues: “We must begin with the fact that God wants the salvation of all and does not want to exclude any one; we must base ourselves on the fact that Christ died for all men and that the Church is a universal sacrament of salvation, as the Second Vatican Council teaches. Therefore, if we begin from these premises, the problem of the need of baptism is framed in a broader context.”

Ladaria’s words shine the spotlight on one of the most fundamental dilemmas in the Church’s evolution. Not very long ago, as recent as the 20th century, children who died without receiving the first sacrament had to be buried outside the cemetery walls. They were, according to handed-down teaching, in limbo. Today most Catholics don’t doubt that unbaptized children are in God’s presence. But a commission of theologians is still wrestling with that question. In fairness, Father Ladaria acknowledge a certain development since the Second Vatican Council, one which places the sacrament of baptism in, as he puts it, “a broader context”. That has taken four decades – the Council ended in 1965. If we transpose this timeframe to the HIV/Aids debate and the need for an adjusted theology in that area, then we would still face another 20 years before we are going to make any progress. How many more people will suffer and die from the disease?

Vatican II in its Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope) made it clear that the Church lives in the world and loves the world. “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ,” the Constitution’s opening words tell us. This means that we Christians have an obligation to assume all the conditions and circumstances of our fellow human beings. Therefore the suffering of an Aids patient in Africa has to touch a Christian in Europe or elsewhere. But have we even started to defer to this tenet of the Council? Or do we have to confess instead that our concern for the real human needs all over the world is generally only marginal?

Of course we can’t share their griefs and joys alone – Gaudium et Spes makes that very clear. To understand them we need competent partners; it requires, as the Pastoral Constitution recommends, “the special help of those who live in the world, [and] are versed in different institutions and specialties, and grasp their innermost significance in the eyes of both believers and unbelievers.” In other words, a fruitful partnership between the spiritual and temporal spheres is essential. Only then can the Church, in the spirit of the Pastoral Constitution, really be Church.

In my experience as a priest, this partnership can develop only if the Church is up to date, if it stands with both feet in modern times. By that I certainly don’t mean that it must pander to the world and adopt a relativism that makes concessions to the Zeitgeist. Rather, I am calling for a serious confrontation with the complex realities and scientific insights of the present. In short: in our ecclesiastical thoughts and actions we must account for the dramatic progress of the 21st century: the destruction of creation, the wars and excess of violence in all corners of the world, the growing disparities that derives from globalisation.

Every year some 8 million people starve, and a billion drink contaminated water every day. A GEO report said that the world’s 500 richest people own as much as the 416 million poorest. The affluent West prospers on the back of the so-called Third World. These are obscene realities.

Why doesn’t our whole Church speak out about this more frequently and loudly?  Why does it allow Jesus to be crucified a million times over every day? At the beginning of the US-led invasion of Iraq, Pope John Paul II protested loudly and in strongest terms. Why is it so rare that we hear the voice of the whole Church when there are so many murders in Iraq, Darfur and Chechyen? Where are its indictments when a nation whose green banknotes declare “In God we trust” persecute individuals in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and all the other torture chambers around the world?

We must restore a human shape to our message. I believe that too often we lose ourselves in theological bickering and don’t look too closely into the face of He who radiates God’s mercy: Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Word made flesh. It is He who became the Brother of us all, who through his actions made God’s message tangible. It is He who looks at us through every human face. “I was in prison, and you did not visit me” (Matthew 25:36). We meet Christ even among prisoners, those who have been found guilty in temporal courts! This is the truly revolutionary attribute of Christianity: The man from Nazareth, around whom we like to theologise, cannot be separated from historical Jesus incarnate. But sometimes we lose sight of the human dimensions of God’s message. And sometimes we stop trying to look for the lost sheep and tend to them, and instead of imitating Christ, we insistently and fearfully cling on to our supposed certainties.

We need this human Christ, the one born in Bethlehem, who suffered for us, died on the Cross, was buried and rose again on the third day, as we profess in the Apostolic Creed. We need this living link between heaven and earth, this true God and true man, so as to accept our fellow human beings as our true brothers and sisters. But our Church leaders often consider it an attack on the magisterium if we emphasise the human nature of Jesus too much. Recently, in 2007, the theologian Jon Sobrino from El Salvador was admonished for doing just that. Although the Vatican voiced its support for his work with the poor and the oppressed, it also accused him of distorting the essence of Christ and downplaying His divine nature.

In my view such verdicts require great caution, because when we forget our spiritual source and the human incarnation of God and His permanent immanence in our times, we will no longer find our way and begin to stumble. It is in people who carry the virus that we encounter the suffering Christ, who becomes human in them. And the same goes for all other suffering people – the hungry, the tortured, the slain.

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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