God, AIDS, Africa & HOPE

pensées of a Catholic priest

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

Rome is always listening

Stefan Hippler

Rome is always listening – Why the German bishops’ visit left a sour taste

Preface

This chapter brought to me the allegation of disloyalty by my superiors and a strong reprimand. It was indeed also the most difficult chapter I have written in this book and the most prayed over. This chapter is not meant to attack any of the bishops personally, but it reflects in a very open and honest way my feelings during and after the visit. To be fair to all concerned I offered to re-write the chapter together with the relevant persons to bring all different experiences on board. The offer was not taken. I once again want to state that there is no intention of disloyalty or personal attack,. To be open and outspoken means to be vulnerable to criticism but I still hope that this chapter is an honest but subjective, and not infallible reflection from my side, meant to stir a debate within the church, but not to hurt a single person.

——–

There’s always the same pattern: visitors from Europe, politicians, ecclesiastics or students come to South Africa and at HOPE Cape Town experience the realities of a very different life – and they are deeply touched by it. Their direct encounter with people in the townships, the sensory observation of suffering and deprivation, the apparent hopelessness, all leave a profound impression. Feedback from these visitors, comprehensive e-mails, international telephone calls – sometimes months or even years later – show that for the first time in their lives they were confronted with an existential extreme. These reactions show that it is possible to build bridges between the worlds which needn’t be so far apart. People in the North become aware of the human situation in the South, they sense the suffering and that in turn finds expression in concerned messages and solidarity.
In the past few years, there was only one group of visitors from which I did not perceive as strong a reaction – the delegation of the German bishops’ conference. I was confused by that and thought a lot about it. I can’t imagine that the bishops – spiritual leaders and officials of Catholic charities – were left cold by the deprivations they saw. One would have to possess a very crusty soul not to be affected by the poverty of a corrugated iron shack, to return to the cold routines of life untouched after observing the sad fate of others. Could it be, I wondered, that after all these years of seeing so much poverty, injustice and despondency our Church delegates have become used to it, or even become desensitized?

Whatever the case, that official visit left a sour aftertaste. Why did these dignitaries react so business-like, so detached, as if everything they had seen didn’t especially moved them?

Of course, I supposed that it was my fault. I can’t deny that my diplomatic dexterity is flawed at times and that my convictions don’t always conform to the Church’s official teachings. Was that it? Was I the wrong man at the wrong time to facilitate an open and unguarded reflection? Did my critical comments about the Church’s inadequate response to HIV/Aids and my challenges on moral theology and ethics perhaps undermine their trust in me?
On the other hand, I recall some conversations which indicated that, behind the cautious and unemotional façade, my visitors were certainly thinking about solutions which did not necessarily accord with official Church line. At the same time I believe that human beings turn into administrators when they are on a leash, always taking care to avoid making themselves vulnerable. They must always say the correct things and sail with the currents in the increasingly centralised Catholic Church. Rome is always listening.
But doesn’t a bishop who is carefully follows the party line and always weighs his words carefully not at risk of losing some of his powers of empathy? Did his ascent up the hierarchy perhaps remove him too far from pastoral realities? I sometimes wonder how a bishop copes. Does he still distinguish between his official and his private self? Is it a case of not just clothes but also titles making the man? But it would also be unfair to tar them all with the same brush, and I most certainly don’t make any claims of my own analysis being infallible. I am rather expressing a concern about the present structure of the Church hierarchy, the criteria governing the selection of new bishops, the packed diaries of these dignitaries, their loneliness (even though they meet so many people), the pressure of always having to keep up appearances… I am concerned about all of this, and with that I return to my earlier question: Why did the high-ranking delegation which visited our projects in April 2006 react with such detachment?

One bishop wrote to me after his return home, saying I had put the delegation “in a difficult position”. A difficult position? But all I had tried to do was to show and tell them the unvarnished truth – which, according to John’s Gospel, is supposed to set us free. The letter made me think deeply about the visit, its prequel and its consequences.

I proposed the visit of the German dignitaries precisely because working in the area of HIV/Aids throws up many moral and ethical questions, so that they might get a realistic picture about the situation in South Africa. To my surprise, it was soon announced that a delegation from the international department of the bishops’ conference was going to travel to South Africa. It was emphasised that the trip was not intended to be linked to the German-speaking chaplaincy or HOPE Cape Town, but to visit the Southern African sister Church with a special reference to HIV/Aids. And, just like in real life, the jockeying for position began: Who would be with the bishops when? Which projects would be visited? When can who decide what about the itinerary? Yes, the Church is just like any other enterprise: when the bosses come, everything goes topsy-turvy. Besides, German bishops are seen through the prism of Euro signs – they have a big influence over the allocation of funding. After much hassle, an itinerary was finalised.
The delegation arrived in Cape Town on Easter Monday. The next day, the visit to our projects at Tygerberg Hospital and to the townships was scheduled. Then a meeting with Desmond Tutu and a reception hosted by the German ambassador. For the rest of the week the visitors would travel to various dioceses throughout South Africa, and in encounters with selected projects learn more about the multi-faceted efforts made in addressing HIV/Aids. Before their departure they were to gather for a collegial reflection at the headquarters of the Southern African bishops’ conference in Pretoria. That was going to round off their fact-finding mission.

I was honoured to open the itinerary that Tuesday morning at Mfuleni’s day clinic, and was quite amazed at the open discussions that ensued about controversial topics in moral theology. But in my discourse I also pointed out that the local Church was not always very helpful when it came to projects, especially if these were too independent. The local Church can sometimes be more destructive than constructive. Hidden jealousy, envy, the fear of losing funds – there are many reasons for that, human reasons, all too human…
And it was exactly that topic, which I had addressed candidly and matter-of-factly, that had created the “difficult situation”. I had dared to touch upon a taboo subject and contrived to breach the sensitive etiquette governing relations between Church officials. Within the context of the already sensitive question of Aids, my infraction of the protocol must have been particularly precarious. Maybe it was that combination which made my guests react as they did.

After their visit, I carefully read all the statements issued by members of the delegation and media reports concerning their visit in South Africa. Nowhere did I find the people the bishops encountered, or their abject shacks, their hunger for justice, their hopes for God’s comfort and human aid. The indigence of millions of South Africans, countless Christians, who are marginalised and die by their hundreds every day – all that was covered only peripherally in these reports. The people’s cries for help, their laments, their appeals, their courage and endurance became an abstract dimension, peripheral within the framework of internal Church diplomacy.
I want to state it more clearly: The press coverage and the statements shocked me. It showed me how compassion, the search for truth and all good intentions for the good of people can be subordinated to institutional structures and codes. And yet I am convinced that the bishops and other dignitaries only want the best for our Church and the faithful. And because of that conviction I am not entitled to pass judgment. However, words like “institutional deficiency”, or, in theological terms, “structural sin” do come to mind. I suppose that by articulating my thoughts I have broken another Church taboo. But I understand myself as being part of that structure, and therefore see it as my priestly duty to break that rule.

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

Mercy before law

Bartholomäus Grill

Mercy before law – How five German bishops formed a view of the pandemic in South Africa

The bishops don’t seem to be comfortable. They have just arrived from their dioceses in Germany and now find themselves in the grim township of Mfuleni on the Cape Flats. Earlier, as they walked through the waiting rooms in the day clinic, mothers were holding out their sick children towards them. To the observer it seemed as though the distinguished visitors were somewhat concerned that by touching these children they might catch something. Now the five bishops and their entourage are listening to a brief introduction which seems to make some of them a little nervous, because the priest addressing them is being quite frank. He is referring to clinical trials with microbicides which women apply to their vaginas to protect themselves for HIV. He is speaking about oral sex, with which young people circumvent the demands of pre-marital abstinence. He is talking about African naturopathy and traditional healers who must be integrated in the fight against the disease, and he tells them that he himself is an honorary sangoma and that he had himself circumcised. And he lectures at length about one protective measure which most Church leaders hesitate to bring up. “We show people how to use condoms. As a priest I could not justify telling them: ‘You may not’.”

That Catholic priest is Stefan Hippler, and he is introducing HOPE Cape Town. He had prepared himself thoroughly for this morning’s presentation. After all, it doesn’t happen every day that five German bishops visit a South African township to learn more about HIV/Aids and its terrible effects. Hippler invited these men of God, a singular opportunity to acquaint them with the stark realities. He speaks bluntly and with great passion. The Aids ribbon on his lapel seems like the insignia of an officer in a military campaign against the disease. On the wall behind Hippler a board meticulously records the distribution of condoms at the day clinic over the past 12 months. It even registers the target figure – 16,306 prophylactics per month. “And yet, so far we have failed,” Hippler concedes. “All our education efforts have failed to meet our goals; prevalence is increasing.”

The statistics from Mfuleni confirm the extent of the crisis. Some 85,000 people live here in cramped conditions. Unemployment stands at 60%, the tuberculosis rate is 30%, and 80% regularly take drugs such as tik (methamphetamines), mandrax or high potency alcohol. The official rape statistics are extremely high; the unofficial numbers are even higher. The virus can spread almost unchecked in that kind of environment. About 30% of men and 45% of women (think about it for a second: forty-five percent) are HIV-infected.

“I would like to tell people in good conscience and with the backing of the Church: ‘You may protect yourselves’,” Hippler reiterates. “People are suffering from Church prescriptions about what they may and may not do…we are creating misery. We are complicit when people infect themselves.”

A German-born bishop from Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, who is escorting his German counterparts, listens to all of this and then rises to speak. “What are we supposed to do with condoms? You are talking nonsense,” he says angrily. A short silence follows. From the room next door we can hear the whimpering of an infant. It is as though an old Catholic ghost is floating in the room: heresy.

Delegation leader Dr Ludwig Schick, Archbishop of Bamberg in Bavaria, chooses his words carefully, but he is taking the same line as his incensed brother bishop. The discussion cannot be reduced to condoms, he cautions, that’s just a side aspect. “Condoms won’t solve the problem, they are not a formula to avoid the spread of Aids,” Archbishop Schick says. “The actual causes must be fought against: poverty, inadequate education, deficient hygiene, deficient medical care…and also moral error.” The archbishop’s analysis sounds downright revolutionary, but one suspects that he really wanted to get off the subject of condoms, that anathema of Catholic teaching.

A consultor in the delegation later says that in “this matter” Africans have to decide for themselves. “We should not and may not interfere. That would be a new form of colonialism.” What audacious justifications we devise to absolve ourselves from responsibility! Evidently the consultor was unaware that a few years earlier the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference had relaxed the policy on condoms as a means of HIV prevention within marriage. Their pastoral letter “A Message of Hope”, adopted in July 2001, allowed spouses to use “appropriate means” to protect themselves from infection. And these appropriate means are made of rubber.

So on this autumn morning there is privation, violence and vulnerability on the outside, and inside hand-wringing balking and reality-dodging. There it is again, that old fear that the dam will break should moral teachings be liberalised. One could call it the Gorbachev Syndrome, after the man who wanted to reform Soviet communism but instead presided over the demise of the Red Empire.

Oh, if only Catholics were as daring as the Anglicans, and more courageous like their shepherds, such as Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of Cape Town, whom the German delegation wants to meet with. At the height of apartheid, The Arch – as the locals fondly call him – put up a Black Madonna in the magnificent neo-Gothic St George’s Cathedral. Just behind the Mother of Mercy, the visitor can admire colourful tapestries which depict how early and resolutely the Anglican Church joined the fight against the disease. And in front, at the entrance, there are brochures with explicit information about HIV/Aids, including images of female and male sex organs affected by sexually transmitted diseases. It is unthinkable that such realistic illustrations would find their way into a Catholic church – in the eyes of the chief ideologues, that is indecent, indeed, dirty. Something like that can’t be shown. The hang-ups are so powerful that eyes are averted from these images. And so one also pushes aside the suffering to which these pictures testify.

But back to Mfuleni, to that memorable meeting with the bishops which is at risk of turning into a lesson about the self-inflicted dilemma of the institutional Church until Gerhard Pieschl, the Bishop of Limburg, raises his hand. He is generally regarded to be on the conservative side of things, but here he shows empathy with Stefan Hippler’s case. “Mercy comes before the law,” Bishop Pieschl explains, “and because of that there must be a way that our Church can differentiate for the good of the people.” To the amusement of the assembly, he adds: “Am I going to end up on the stake now?”

As the visitors walk through the slum, looking into its humble shacks and chatting with their residents, Bishop Leo Schwarz of Trier says something else which gives me hope: “These people must know all the option and decide according to their conscience.” He evidently has taken to heart the earlier plea from Fr Hippler: “I ask you to think more about these questions… We must overcome the fear that we might say something wrong. I can say it, because I don’t want to become a bishop.”

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

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