God, AIDS, Africa & HOPE

Thoughts, inside, comments of a Catholic priest

And it does move

Stefan Hippler


And it does move  –  Instead of an epilogue, a wish list for our Church

Why did we write this book? Because we have a matter with which we are trying to reach the Vatican, the centre of our Church. We sent the German edition of this book to Pope Benedict XVI in Rome as this was the only way of reaching him. We tried, but for an ordinary foreign chaplain it is impossible to secure a private audience with the pontiff, and even less so when he is accompanied by a critical brethren, a journalist even. “But why is the pope so important to you?” our friends ask. That’s simple: because the Catholic Church is centred on one man whose word is the law in the Catholic Church; he represents God’s supremacy. In these bewildering times of HIV/Aids, he – and only he – can effect a real landmark change.

I have tried to get access at least to an influential curial cardinal, the equivalent of a cabinet minister in the Vatican government. But even that turned out to be a mission impossible, because the path to them runs through local episcopates, which in turn were less than cooperative because our matter relates to the delicate subject of HIV/Aids. My co-author Bartholomäus Grill asked Father Eberhard von Gemmingen, the Jesuit editor-in-chief of Vatican Radio’s German service, for advice. He suggested that we collaborate with other theologians in formulating a kind of declaration to be sent to the Vatican. This book is our declaration.

Some fellow Catholics advised against taking this route. “It won’t accomplish anything. You won’t be thanked for it and in the end you’ll get into trouble,” they warned. Clearly there is not much confidence in our Church leadership’s openness to dialogue. But in the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes it is written: “By virtue of her mission to shed on the whole world the radiance of the Gospel message, and to unify under one Spirit all men of whatever nation, race or culture, the Church stands forth as a sign of that brotherhood which allows honest dialogue and gives it vigour” (92). This is a caution that even in the licit diversity of thought in the Church, dialogue must always be marked by “mutual esteem, reverence and harmony”. Gaudium et Spes teaches that  “thus all those who compose the one People of God, both pastors and the general faithful, can engage in dialogue with ever abounding fruitfulness. For the bonds which unite the faithful are mightier than anything dividing them. Hence, let there be unity in what is necessary; freedom in what is unsettled, and charity in any case.” This could be the leading motto of our book.

I am convinced that in this spirit, development on controversial ecclesial and theological issues is and must be possible – that in the 21st century we can and may revise the time-honoured teachings of Church Fathers such as St Augustine.

Konrad Hilpert, professor of moral theology at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilian University, in a highly recommended essay demonstrated how St Augustine’s dictum of error having no freedom marked papal proclamations right up to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). As recently as the reign of Pius IX in the 19th century, encyclicals such as Quanta cura and its attendant syllabus (a list of “theological errors”) denied the notion of religious freedom. Pius IX even described the idea of freedom of conscience and safeguarding it in civil law as an “error and absurdity, and even madness”.

Hilpert credits our Pope Benedict XVI, among others, for the Vatican II decree which enshrined religious freedom. For the Pope, then Fr Joseph Ratzinger and a theological expert at the Council, 28 October 1965 signified the “end of the Dark Ages” That was the day that, after much heated discussion, the Council adopted the decree Nostra aetate. It included the revolutionary sentence: “The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, colour, condition of life, or religion.” A courageous Council managed a breakthrough from which we can’t and don’t want to turn back.

More than 40 years have passed since, and the world has become so much more complex and complicated that an individual person can’t understand it in its totality. Not even the Pope. He must rely on the analysis of highly qualified experts. And this is where the problems begin: It always seems as though some papal advisers have divorced themselves from the secular world, as if they are sitting in the ivory tower of the Vatican, trying to understand the realities of “out there”. Often this creates a conflict with actual conditions. A reform that would see the regular rotation of consultative curial personnel is overdue. We need consultants who know real life and in the pursuit of truth conduct a fearless dialogue with the world.

Our hopes rest entirely with the Pope. He is a kind and humble man, and a brilliant theologian – that is a perfect combination of attributes to bring about freedom of research and spiritual examination within the ecclesiastical system. Theology and life, teaching and praxis, tradition and experience, religion and enlightenment must reconcile for the convergence of truth. Of course this is a self-critical endeavour which might afflict some people. It’s about the Church’s capacity to adapt, something which throughout Church history has always posed a challenge. But we have the protection of the Holy Spirit and must trust that the Spirit will guide our thoughts and actions.

The journey with HOPE Cape Town has changed my life. My encounters in the townships, my work with people from different cultures, the existential confrontation with dying and death, with desperation and hope – all these experiences are a gift from God for which I am infinitely thankful. I am at home in two worlds: in the world of poverty which needs aid, and in the world of prosperity which can offer such aid. I am something of a nomad between these worlds – I often had doubts that I might be able do that. Today I can say that it was the best thing that could ever have happened to me.

One must have visited a corrugated iron shack in South Africa to get a measure of the extent of the crisis. One must have held the hand of someone about to die from the effects of immune deficiency to appreciate the extreme injustice of globalised apartheid. One must have seen, heard, smelled and tasted the misery to really understand it. Only then is it possible to fully comprehend the scandal of the present conditions, the ignorance of the mighty, and the indifference of the affluent.

The Sabbath exists for the people, not the people for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). With that in mind, I express my wish that the Church leaders in the inner circles would occasionally turn around to see the realities faced by the people on the periphery.

I have contributed to this book as a human being who is confronted every day with the struggles for survival of the poor and the ill, as one who lives and suffers with them. I have written as a Christian who believes to be meeting Jesus in every one of our brothers and sisters. I have written as a Catholic who knows that the joys and fears of his fellow human beings are also his joys and fears. And I have written as a pastor of a church which always seeks, because of its historical experience and eternal vocation, to reform itself anew.

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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