Wanted – a theology of Aids
The principle of oikonomia: a way out for a Catholic dilemma
It is remarkable that in our godless times, when many people have abandoned faith and church, the debate about the meaning of religion should become more intense than it has been for a long time. It relates to Samuel Huntington’s controversial theory of the “Clash of Civilisations” which today finds expression in the various conflicts and inflated sensibilities between the Muslim and Christian worlds. And it also relates to the death of Pope John Paul II and the choice of his successor, Benedict XVI.
Since his election, Catholic moral teaching has been subjected to much heated discussion in the media. Of course, the old debate about condoms keeps coming up, especially among journalists who normally show scant interest in the Church. The Holy See is not impervious to this: at least the Vatican has started to think about the use of preservatives as a possible means of protection within marriage.
The first time the new pope welcomed a delegation of bishops from Southern Africa, he shared their deep concern about the destruction created by Aids. But the full extent of the tragedy was still being underestimated, because the pontiff underlined chastity and fidelity as the only reliable way of curbing the disease.
While the centre is in a state of understated bafflement, we at the periphery have to observe that those who follow the Church teachings on sexual morality too scrupulously put themselves at mortal risk, particularly African women whose husbands are unfaithful. The continent tells many thousands distressing stories – but few are listening, not even in the Church which places a primacy on the protection of life. We are letting our people down – with all good intentions but fatal consequences. Among Africa’s millions of Aids dead are also millions of dead Catholics. But most Church leaders have learnt to keep quiet, looking to Rome for answers. Which way are we going to take?
The Catholic Church is a communion of saints and sinners, and we are called to attend to both. Vatican II refers us to our sister churches and their rich traditions. I am delighted to note that Pope Benedict XVI’s intent to build on the legacy of the Council. Perhaps this may open a window of opportunity, a little window of hope? Perhaps words will be followed by action? Perhaps we can learn from our sister churches?
For example, the Orthodox Church recognises the principle of oikonomia.
A Greek word meaning maintenance and prudence, it expresses the mystery of divine love made real through Jesus Christ’s message and His living example which endures in the endeavours of the Church. The principle respects the authoritative rules of the Church, but allows for these to be set aside under exceptional circumstances – not to set a precedent, but for the sake of suffering people. For instance, the Orthodox Church applies oikonomia in a failing marriage: in principle, matrimony is indissoluble, but it can break down irreconcilably. In such cases, new nuptials are permissible after a period of reflection and penance. Thus, God’s merciful and unconditional love is manifest even in failure. What God makes possible, the Church has to put into action as it seeks to communicate a credible account of a loving God.
Vatican II calls on us Christian to read the “Signs of the Times”, and HIV/Aids is such a sign.
For the Church, the only appropriate response is to fight the pandemic not with moral arguments, but by embracing infected people with God’s absolute love – with a love that does not care only for the ill but is also open to all human reality, and which does not condemn. I plead with theologians and bishops to discuss this way, this principle of oikonomia sincerely and judiciously, and to do so very soon, because our brothers and sisters are dying. We are running danger of sinning against them by omission. It simply cannot be that the disciplines of the Church precede the right to life!
As I attempt to explain the spirit of oikonomia to my Christian brothers and sisters, I am met by very diverse reactions. Moral theologians point out that the principle isn’t at all new, and that many a cardinal or bishop is already leaning towards it. The brave among them even permit the option of condom use. But it is exactly because I take the Church’s teaching authority so seriously that I am hoping for a clear word from the Prince of the Apostles in Rome. On a global scale, a papal pronouncement would weigh more than diffuse episcopal voices. An impassioned word, borne of the suffering of people and God’s unending love, could save so many lives.
Some of my critics have contended that the theological principle of oikonomia would open the gates for immoral behaviour through the backdoor. They misinterpret my suggestion. I cannot work out how the freedom to use condoms should invariably lead to debauchery, especially when scientific studies do not support that argument. Even less do I understand why a little piece of latex should ignite such heated debate in Catholic circles. Of course it is right that we as Church should advocate our moral code, but from this flows no right to condemn effective protection against death and thereby confuse the faithful.
The most frequent question put to me on this point is this: “Isn’t the manner in which you seek to interpret and apply the oikonomia principle focussed exclusively on the condom issue?” My answer is: No, it means much, much more than that. Primarily the oikonomia principle would serve to address prejudice and stigmatization. In the field of HIV/Aids, the issues range from the disciplines of the Church to equal gender rights.
The lives and suffering of HIV-positive people would change if we welcomed them as brothers and sisters, instead of letting them feel subtle discrimination, for example when people who reveal themselves as HIV-positive are quietly advised to move into another parish, or when they have to wait until they are mortally ill before we provide them with palliative care. Of course we will encounter individuals who reject our Christian value system. But even in these cases it is important to reveal all life options and to control our missionary zeal. In doing so we don’t betray our moral principles, but much more recognise the freedom of conscience of those who don’t conform to them.
In the early 1980s, when the virus was first discovered, Ronald Reagan was the president of the United States of America. He was a devout Christian and, like many of his co-religionists, saw the disease as a “gay illness”, a punishment for the supposed depravity of homosexuals. As a result, the US government did not take the epidemic seriously and responded to it only half-heartedly. The consequences of that are well known: the virus spread unchecked.
The errors of Reagan’s administration should remind us Christians in particular that all our actions and all our teachings could have a fatal price. They should also remind us that we human beings are the first recipients of God’s infinite love. Which brings us back to oikonomia. Only if we recognise and experience this principle ourselves will we be able to pass it on to our sisters and brothers elsewhere.
Our sermons, statements and good intentions count for nothing against the applied Word of God, the experience of God’s love. So we must today do everything we can to curb the spread of HIV/Aids so that in 50 years time the Catholic Church need not issue a remorseful mea culpa – that would be of absolutely no use to millions of Aids victims.
We desperately need a theology of Aids – but not one taking the form of academic proclamations from the Roman curia, but a new, living doctrine which draws from the experiences of HIV-positive people. Because it is here – among the infected, the suffering and the dying, and among all our sisters and brothers – where we find God. Here we meet our Brother Jesus, the very source of our theology.
A practical suggestion: We should utilise our churches and institutional facilities as places of tranquillity and discretion where people can let themselves be tested. Our Church is the biggest religious communion in the world; none has greater numbers of facilities that could be employed in the fight against the pandemic. This would be constructive especially in developing countries where the necessary infrastructure is often lacking.
Why don’t we offer voluntary HIV-tests before every wedding, and then, regardless of the results, encourage the love between two people and strengthen it in the sacrament of matrimony? What a wonderful symbol of solidarity that would be! We would no longer judge and condemn, but assist HIV-positive people and their incipient family life. Of course we also would have to answer the question of how to prevent the transmission of the virus in procreation. Scientific research has shown that a positive test result and knowledge of it has no significant influence on sexual behaviour. We must use this fact to encourage permanent behavioural modification. This is one way in which we as the Catholic Church can move ahead without zealousness.
Pope Benedict is preparing for a second Synod for Africa. It would be a courageous and groundbreaking sign if two days would be allocated to the topic of HIV/Aids and its catastrophic effects. One day, perhaps, to just listen to people who carry the virus, and a second day in which to prayerfully reflect on their reports. Utopic, you say? No, that would be oikonomia in action!
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