God, AIDS, Africa & HOPE

pensées of a Catholic priest

Free to travel – but only if you’re healthy

Stefan Hippler

Free to travel – but only if you’re healthy
Many countries don’t welcome the HIV-infected

Bonn, March 2005. I have the honour of participating in a consultation meeting of the German ministry for economic cooperation. The purpose is to discuss a draft bill on the subject of “Solutions for the government on HIV and Aids”. I landed up in this illustrious company by sheer coincidence, and now scan the briefing documents before me. I am surprised at the statements put forward by the Church’s aid organisations represented here. They are wasting a golden opportunity to make binding recommendations in the decision process.

At some point I can’t hold myself back any longer. A chapter on the issue of travel freedom for HIV-infected people is so vague that I simply have to enter the discussion. I propose that the German government clearly and unambiguously endorse this freedom – a right, after all, which modern societies take for granted. Anything less should be regarded as discrimination. When I’m done, there is much murmuring in the inner circles; the official representatives are conferring with each other. After a while I am advised that unfortunately such an explicit recommendation would fall outside the scope of the bill, because the state could not always abide by it. From their rather fuzzy clarifications I understand that it seems to be not necessarily desirable that HIV-positive applicants should be allowed to study in Germany.

Saarbrücken, almost exactly a year later. I’m visiting a family which has taken in a South African child. The relevant government department, the foster parents say, has made it clear that the adoption of an HIV-positive child would not be approved. The international Hague Adoption Convention, signed by Germany and about 75 other states, does not authorise such restrictions. But the bureaucrats don’t care one bit about that.

These two examples illuminate why it is so difficult to fight against discrimination. It isn’t just individuals who discriminate, but also states and their organs. A particularly notorious example is Australia’s rigorous deportation policy. In April 2007 then-Prime Minister John Howard proposed to deny all HIV-positive asylum seekers and migrants entry into Australia. Likewise, the United States used to turn away HIV-positive asylum seekers at their port of entry and abolished the rule recently. Other countries, such as Germany, apply veiled restrictions.

All of these forms of discrimination are politically intolerable and ethically repulsive. And yet increasing numbers of state take these types of measures and restrict the travel freedoms of HIV-positive people. They are treated like outcasts. Regrettably, my Church has yet to register its vociferous protest, even though it calls for the prevention of stigmatization and ostracism. The average citizen should be made conscious that infected people are as human as other people.

But in real life there is a collective fear of infected people, and these fears manifest themselves bureaucratically in travel bans, in forced testing and in the refusal of work and study permits. The official excuses are always the same: the burden on the health system, the spread of the pathogen through accident or sexual contact, and so on. If they don’t want HIV-infected people coming to their countries or adoptions of HIV-positive babies, then these states and political decision-makers should just unequivocally say so and stop playing their hypocritical games. In doing so, they would say bluntly: we are acting to protect our population. But medically, that would be nonsense, as a 2004 UNAids study has shown so eloquently.

Here in South Africa, every child is taught at school that HIV-positive citizens must be treated like any other. But in practice it’s a different story altogether. That’s why I keep asking myself how we might get people to not stigmatize and discriminate. How can we persuade relatives, friends, colleagues or bosses to follow the standards of equal rights? And how are we to interpret a bishop’s dutiful Sunday sermons if he never raises his voice in defence of the stigmatised? Most of our Church leaders are relentlessly silent on that injustice. After all, there are more important matters to get worked up about, such as same-sex partnerships. These issues sap their strength; so how can they still be expected to muster the energy to intervene on behalf of their ostracised and disempowered brothers and sisters with the virus in their blood?

But if one doesn’t let them into the country, then there is no need to deal with the problem. What a merciless, globalised world in which everything moves – commodities, capital, services, information – except 40 million HIV-infected people who are told to stay where they are. For a South African baby in Germany or a Kenyan student at a European border the message is clear: Keep out! And all that happens, as I found out at the consultation in Bonn, with the silent consent of those who represent our Church.

 

In October 20057, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited together with a delegation the HOPE Cape Town Association. Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, who was part of the visit, promised to approach the then German Minister of Interior Wolfgang Schaeuble to clarify the rules of visa applications in connection with the problem of HIV and AIDS. The consequent correspondence between the two ministers clarified that there are no legal grounds to reject a visa application on the grounds of HIV and AIDS. This makes the named cases even more unjust, as civil servants seem to take the law in their own hands and taint them with their own prejudice.

In August 2008 I approached officially the German Catholic Bishops Conference to enquire about their dealing with this highly ethical issue. I was told that there has never been any statement in this concern but I was promised that one would look now into the matter. A year later I received news that the German Bishops Conference does not see any need to deal with travel restrictions.

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, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

We are not lost!

Bartholomäus Grill

We are not lost! – How young people in Lesotho use unusual methods to fight the pandemic

By now it’s the fourth or fifth funeral parlour we have passed as we drive from Lesotho’s capital Maseru to the king’s village. It’s a brand-new building; the paint and the logo advertising “Funeral Service” are still pristine. “That’s the fastest-growing industry in Lesotho,” says Thabiso Motsusi. He means to joke, and laughs to reassure his disheartened visitor. But how else should the visitor feel today? It’s murky and wet, the mountains are shrouded in black clouds, and icy gusts are announcing the onset of the Southern winter. At the edge of the town we come across a funeral procession, we pass a cemetery with fresh graves, and we count the number of establishments whose trade is mortality. These are the visible signs of the catastrophe that has overwhelmed Lesotho.

The small kingdom in the Southern African Drakensberg is among the countries with the highest HIV/Aids rates in the world. Every third adult in the economically active age group of 15-49 years carries the virus. Average life expectancy, according to UNAids estimates, has dropped to 35,2 years – a figure that corresponds with the conditions in medieval Europe! These shocking statistics have helped reinforce a Western impression of Africans just accepting their fate, standing by feebly as the disease devours their communities.

The hopeless continent – it’s an enduring cliché, and it infuriates activists like Thabiso Motsusi. He and his team disprove the stereotype every day. They are doing so on this gloomy winter morning, as they have done for years, driving from Maseru to the most isolated mountain villages where they provide Aids education. They debate with communities, they overcome silence and denial, they offer sound advice, and they hand out thousands of condoms. And they use a medium which very few Basotho in the region have access to: video. Sesotho Media & Development, founded in 1999 by the South African documentary filmmaker Don Edkins and funded by Brot für die Welt, has an archive of 150 films on political, social and cultural problems. One, entitled Ask Me, I’m Positive, is particularly popular. Directed by Edkins’ son Teboho, the film’s leads are Thabiso and his friends Thabo Rannana and Moalosi Thabane. They play themselves: three young HIV-positive men who speak openly, provocatively and with humour about their disease.

Today the group is five strong – Thabiso, Thabo, Moalosi, Malehloa and Mamolefe – and the destination of their Mobile Video Unit is Matsieng, the home village of Lesotho’s king. Rondavels with reed roofs, luscious grazing meadows, the monarch’s palace beneath steep rock face from which one can hear the whooshing of a waterfall – the place might call to mind an old African idyll, if it wasn’t for this eerie silence. Just a few children and some old folks are about. As the film starts in the community centre, only a few curious villagers have arrived. “Today there are two funerals, and everybody is gone to those,” a community leader says apologetically. Two more Aids victims, two more young people fallen to the disease. But we won’t learn about the cause of their death until later. The community leader didn’t volunteer that information; he is embarrassed.

Two hours later, the audience in the draughty hall has swelled to 30, and they are watching a short film, A Miner’s Tale. It is about migrant labourers from Lesotho – salaried slaves – who toil in South African mines, bringing home money and lethal diseases. But the people of Matsieng are not convinced by the message. “The sickness came from rich countries,” opines an old man, covered in a thick blanket. “It’s in the food the whites are distributing.” A woman in a red jersey believes the Southern African Development Community (SADC) caused the disaster. Aids is a curse; it’s simply inexplicable why the immune deficiency syndrome has hit their tiny country so hard. One Sesotho word used to describe the pandemic is Sekere – the scissors that cut away people. Kokonya, a blood-sucking insect, is another. A farmer tells of how a 15-year-old girl, an Aids orphan, was terrorized in his village. “Be quiet, or we’ll beat you to death,” her own relatives threatened.

Ignorance, fear, superstition, stigmatization – a panorama of Aids-confusion is unfolding in the gloom of the hall. The educators of Sesotho Media are used to it; they debate in plain language and with unflinching composure. In the end it’s their sincerity that wins over the crowd. “Look at me,” Moalosi shouts, “I’ve been HIV-positive for years, and yet I’m still alive! We’re not lost; we can still curb the disease.”

Moalosi doesn’t let on that he doesn’t feel too well today. Shortly before the group’s departure he had suffered debilitating cramps. On the way here he quickly bought painkillers at a pharmacy. “I would have joined the ancestors a long time ago if I didn’t have antiretroviral medication,” he says. Those who have access to these expensive drugs are among the privileged few in Lesotho: at the end of 2005, only 8,400 patients were receiving ARV therapy. The number of people who need it urgently, however, is closing in on 100,000. “As a poor country, we have an enormous disparity, but what’s more important is prevention,” Malehloa says.

We hear the same words from the king, who receives us the next day. His Majesty King Letsie III, a corpulent and thoughtful man in his 40s, is a godsend for his country. He speaks about the disease candidly and without inhibitions. Among African rulers he is quite unusual in that respect. African leaders by and large act as though HIV/Aids was just an illusion, and they definitely will not talk about the absolute power of men and their calamitous sexual practices which accelerate the proliferation of the disease. King Letsie, a practising Catholic, is not shy to chide his own Church: the blinkered priests who continue to denounce condoms and on Sundays issue their naïve appeals: “Be abstinent! Practise chastity! Don’t sin!” Involuntarily a big field in the middle of Maseru springs to mind. On it stands a rusting white metal structure: the pavilion built especially for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Lesotho in 1988. It is an unintentional symbol of how the Vatican has let Africa down. “We must act,” the king warns. “There is not a single family in my kingdom that has not been affected” by HIV/Aids. “If we don’t act, we will disappear from the face of the earth.”

The mobile cinema’s next deployment is at Butha-Buthe prison. The inmates have gathered inside an army tent in the courtyard. They are murderers, rapists, robbers. All men, most of them still quite young. The acrid scent of sweat permeates the hot and sticky air beneath the olive canvas. The men sit tightly packed on the clay ground and watch a film titled A Fighting Spirit. It tells the story of Gilbert Josamu, an HIV-positive boxer who acknowledged his illness and continued to fight, to the outrage of some opponents. The film is intended to encourage a thorny discussion. They know that every third man here is HIV-positive, but nobody knows who.

“Why is it so difficult when somebody outs himself?” Moalosi asks. “Because,” an inmate responds, “you’ll be cast out. And here you can’t run away from it.” Moalosi: “But wouldn’t it be better to deal with the problem openly?” “No, because then there is a greater fear of being infected,” says a giant of a man who doesn’t look much like anything could scare him. “But everybody should at least be tested,” says a man with a woollen cap next to the giant. “I did, but I won’t give away the result.” “But we must know who is HIV-positive,” another inmate objects, “because we sometimes have fights, and then there’s blood.”

An older man, who says he is a sangoma (or traditional healer), reassures his cohorts: “Don’t worry, I can cure Aids.” But most inmates don’t think much of his quackery. They want to know more about the disease. How is the virus transmitted? Is sweat contagious? Can we use the same ablution facilities without having to worry?

Questions, answers, interjections, doubts. For half an hour the discussion swings back and forth. Then a shaven-headed boy rises and declares with quivering voice: “I want to publicly admit today that I am positive.” Suddenly there is silence in the tent, uncertain and suspicious looks fly this way and that way. After about a minute, a prisoner growls: “I’m in a cell with that man. I want to be transferred.” The mood is threatening to turn ugly. Fingers are pointed: Why is he telling us only now? Later Moalosi will admit that this was a very precarious situation. There might have been huge trouble, if not now than certainly later, in the cells. But then there is Akim Phamotse, the avuncular, affable prison director. He moves among the prisoners and calms things down. “Nobody will be discriminated against,” he instructs. “Everybody can be voluntarily tested and the results will be anonymous. But everybody should feel free to tell others about it. We will help and protect you.”

In a prison such an attitude comes unexpectedly. African jails tend to be dumps in which inmates rot away in misery. But in the correctional facility of Butha-Buthe there are democratic rules, and human rights are observed. The prison regularly hosts discussions with Aids consultants.

Return to Maseru. It is slowly getting dark. On the roadsides women balance bundles of firewood on their heads, and cows with lightly chiming bells are coming down from the mountains. The team is satisfied: another good performance, another little step taken in the long fight against the disease. Some children are waving; they know the white SVU with the number AP 845. Thabo, Moalosi and the others with their mobile cinema in the mountains of Lesotho – that could be a model for all of Africa. After a day like this, not even all those funeral parlours can breach a good vibe.

“Aids kills! Aids is real!” The big billboards bearing that slogan and the huge Aids ribbon on the boulders overlooking the capital city are symbols of hopefulness. Look here, we are taking the challenge on. We are not going to just surrender to the pandemic. As we pass the peculiar papal structure, we realise what distinguishes this campaign from other Aids education enterprises: there wasn’t a single white adviser or consultant involved, no medical expert from Europe, no field manager, no know-it-all coordinator. Just Africans. Young, creative men and women who are themselves infected, who in spite of their acute circumstances retain an incredible self-belief in their fight against the disease. And they are so joyful in their work that they put us pessimists to shame.

Now we’re sitting in Sesotho Media’s compact office. The team and their sensible coordinator, Malibuseng Matsoso, are planning next week’s tours. But first Thabiso wants to tell us a story. When he and his colleagues were going to fly to Germany to exhibit their film Ask me, I Am Positive at the Africa Festival in Würzburg, German immigration officials intercepted them already at Johannesburg airport. Aids education? Invitation? Anyone can say that. Your papers are forgeries, they were told. The three men were detained and for several days had no access to their life-saving medications. After a week, South African officials simply deported them to Lesotho.

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, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The thing about the rubber

Stefan Hippler

The thing about the rubber – Why the argument about condoms is misleading

I am sure that I’m not the only priest who wonders about the Catholic Church’s vehement opposition to condoms and artificial contraceptives in general. Sometimes is seems almost as though the salvation of humanity hinges on a piece of latex. The reason the Church rejects condoms so fiercely is complex. I will try to explain it in plain and simple terms. And I can already hear scholarly theologians tearing through this chapter, but I’ll give it a try regardless.
To begin with, one needs to understand why the Church has such a problem with the subject of condoms itself.

Firstly, condoms are linked to sexuality, a subject that, as we know, has a stormy relationship with religion, going back to Judaism, the ancestor of Christianity. Yes, even the Jewish scribes of antiquity grappled with that “problem”, and over the course of history they have arrived at very different conclusions. Anyone who has read the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament will know how uninhibited and sensual Judaism could be. But because temple prostitutes were a symbol of paganism, some forms of sexuality were always deemed sinful.

The Apostle Paul merged the various influences exhibiting themselves in the early Church with ideas from Greek philosophy, and many Church Fathers followed his lead. This resulted in a prudery which sees even marital sex not as a manifestation of love, but as an ignoble necessity. St Augustine amplified this notion. In his day, debates were held about whether sexual relations could be permissible if it was accompanied by passion. As a former follower of Manichæism, which taught the inherent sinfulness of the body, Augustine linked the principle of original sin to the properties of sexuality. Thomas of Aquinas modified and expanded on the concept. At the end of his life, it is said, the great thinker found that after the experience of God all his work seemed like straw, and ordered his secretary to burn it all. It wasn’t, and a few alterations aside, the theology of sexual morality in the Catholic Church has remained the same: sexual love is fine, but only exclusively within marriage. The Church narrows down all sexuality to marital intercourse, at the pain of sin. Benedikt XIV tries to reflect in “Deus caritas est” partly about it, quoting amongst others Friedrich Nietzsches perception that religion has poised eros.
There has been an inopportune fixation on sex and all the potential for sin associated with it. Prayer books provide a striking example of that attitude, especially those published before the Second Vatican Council, but also afterwards. I remember well the words and expressions in the Beichtspiegel – the pamphlet intended to aid one’s recollection prior to Confession – which unintentionally encouraged adolescent fantasies.

Ironically, it was celibate theologians who contemplated the nature of human urges.

And their mantra was, “The Church is never wrong.” As time progressed, it did not matter that human thought and behaviour had changed and that research into sexuality had produced new findings. Longer life expectancy extended the length of marriages by decades. The earlier onset of puberty and the older age at which people married expanded the length of pre-marital abstinence. And couples had fewer children, as it was no longer necessary to have many children as insurance for old age. The Church and its thinkers paid no mind to these profound changes.

It’s God’s will, say the theologians, bound by the stipulation of chastity. I wonder if it really is God’s will. Is God really that excited by the topic of sexuality? In the face of pitiless injustices in the world, does He really have the time to be troubled about the sex lives of a billion people, never mind a little piece of rubber? Is it really His will that the Church should act less like a global messenger of the Good News than like an intolerant watchdog of morality?
Love and do as you want, St Augustine once said. To him, that was the radical substance of Christ’s message. This virtually anarchic assertion, which refers merely to God’s love, puts fear not only into the tyrants of this world, but also into many a Church leader. What might happen, they ask, if we actually went along with that idea? I think that we would actually come closer to meeting the intentions of Jesus, the Way and Truth and Life.
Even if there were no HIV/Aids and the question of protection against infection, the condom question would still need to be thoroughly revised. It just doesn’t suffice to resort to “balancing of interests” and ask whether we can tolerate the “lesser evil” or equivocate over what married couples may or may not do.

The answer could be so easy, though. The condom is, like any object, in itself neither good nor bad. It is only the use of an object that is good or bad. If the object is used to save lives, it is good. Period. This conclusion should apply within marriage and outside, because how can we justify the death of people even if they do not live up to our Church’s strict moral code? Shouldn’t the teenager who sleeps with his girlfriend protect himself – and her? It’s a question of life and death, literally. In that light, long discussions about whether the authorisation of condoms might lead to an increase in promiscuity are irrelevant. Indeed, the debate has already been settled. Studies show unambiguously that the use of prophylactics has no influence on the numbers of sexual partners or frequency of sexual acts. Isn’t it right that empirical studies – facts – should be integrated in the study of moral theology?
But then there is also a concern that obedience to the Church’s teaching authority might take a knock if moral theology is altered. I can well understand the misgivings in the Roman curia. It’s in a Catch-22 situation. A precedent might be set, a crack in the vigilantly fortified wall of tradition – and nobody wants to bear that responsibility. And yet, the teachings of the Church have in many respects changed dramatically over the past two millennia. The Church’s teachings may, should and must develop. It must do so for the good of the people, and for the sake of our loving God.
I am quite aware that many bishops are heartily sick of the discussion about condoms. But maybe they should listen more closely. At stake here is a perception – stated and unstated – among a great many Christians who think the Church’s line of argument is incorrect and therefore damaging to its credibility. The questions from critical believers who want the Church to take human suffering more seriously always strike me as cries of the heart. We are in a crisis that is more important than a piece of rubber.

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, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Are you a mule?

Stefan Hippler

Are you a mule? – Sexual pressures on girls and young women in Africa

I have been invited to lead a dialogue on HIV and Aids at a Catholic high school for girls in Cape Town. So there I stand in front of 200 girls between the ages of 13 and 17, and a lively discussion follows. I ask the girls whether they are already sexually active. In unison they respond with a resounding “no”. The question is just whether we are talking about the same thing. It turns out that in the minds of these girls, sex means penetrative vaginal sex. A blowjob administered to boys on the bus is not really sex. Petting, mutual masturbation, anal intercourse? Also not. And so the girls wear the chastity belt with pride and still have their fun. At confession they are not conscious of any sin. One can imagine what that attitude means in terms of the transmission of sexual diseases and HIV.

The girls reach sexual maturity early. Why should they remain chaste until wedlock? Because God wants it so? God did not set any rules for sexual development. In Jesus’ time, married couples were young – puberty and marriage often coincided. But what do we say to young people for whom many years will pass between sexual maturity and matrimony? Are we really helping them if we pronounce a categorical prohibition imposing upon them the priestly obligation of chastity and a celibate lifestyle, and condemn them when they fail? Don’t our solutions create new problems which come back to haunt us? Don’t we risk losing our moral and ethical powers of persuasion when we deny contemporary realities and insist on views that go back to St Augustine?
Or, conversely, are we in danger of submitting to “modernist relativism”, as our Church leaders fear.
I don’t think so. I am much more convinced that the many questions and doubts expressed by these girls, representative of their generation, are defensible and appropriate. They sense the disparity between the teachings of the Church and their lives at school, in their townships or in their villages.
One just need to read the sobering account by a development worker who for a long time worked in the deepest rural areas: “Young women whom I trained to become teachers told me that they became pregnant as girls because they were cajoled and also pressured by every sexually able man between the ages of 15 and 55 in the village. ‘We must see whether you are a mule or not.’ So 95% of my students were already mothers of one or two children… It was virtually impossible for them to exercise their sexual autonomy. Aids-infections were inevitable, and that is also a failing of the Holy See and the local Church which denounce condoms and are tabooing sexuality.”
African mothers sometimes resort to hair-raising methods to conceal the sexual development of their daughters, in a bid to protect them from male attention. In Cameroon, for example, they “iron” their daughters’ growing breasts with hot granite stones over the course of several years, so that they will not become targets to predatory men at too young an age. There is a national campaign to root out this form of torture.
But back to South Africa, to the Catholic schoolgirls. They want to get clear answers from us. They want to be able to articulate their concerns, without feelings of shame or guilt. The Church could create a confidential environment in which it might communicate those norms and values which would help these girls to shape their lives responsibly. But these young people will be receptive to these values only if their emotional being is taken seriously, and if we are willing to be receptive to contemporary scientific insights. Moral values and their practice are not set in stone, but are prone to change. What is crucial is that we preserve the core of these values, and manage to explain them. Then it will be easier to educate careless or uninformed youths about the enormous risks of their sexual practices.

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, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Blog Categories

Follow God, AIDS, Africa & HOPE on WordPress.com

15th HOPE Gala Dresden

HOPE Gala Dresden - the event to be in DresdenOctober 31st, 2020
3 days to go.

Ball of HOPE 2021

Join us @ The Westin in Cape TownMay 15th, 2021
6 months to go.

Stefan Hippler Twitter Account

  • RT @JacquesMaree73: Malema can’t stop telling the world how much he dislikes anything remotely caucasian. That is until he needs to be bail… - 1 hour ago

You can share this blog in many ways..

Bookmark and Share

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 3,076 other followers

Translation – Deutsch? Française? Espanol? …

The translation button is located on each single blog page, Copy the text, click the button and paste it for instant translation:
Website Translation Widget

or for the translation of the front page:

* Click for Translation

Copyright

© Rev Fr Stefan Hippler and HIV, AIDS and HOPE.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Rev Fr Stefan Hippler and HIV, AIDS and HOPE with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

This not withstanding the following applies:
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

%d bloggers like this: