Shepherd to a dying flock

It is noteworthy that at a time when many people have given up on the church and some aspects of its moral teaching, the death of John Paul II and the election of the new pope should have reignited the debate on the question of the Catholic Church and condoms.

Journalists and people far removed from the church’s teaching are suddenly interested in the church, its teaching and the possible changes of the teaching in these times of transition.

As a Catholic priest I can reflect on it in many ways. The 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae—which prescribed methods surrounding procreation—and its consequences still seem to curtail open debate within the church.

In Humanae vitae Pope Paul VI could have followed the majority advice of his own experts, who counselled a measure of acceptance for artificial contraception. He didn’t, and many Catholics simply ignore it.

Another fact is that our people are dying. The millions of deaths worldwide, especially in Africa, as a consequence of HIV and Aids also include millions of Catholics.

We might wish it was otherwise, and we can insist on behaviour changes according to papal teaching—but it is not happening.

If we are honest, we must admit that the church’s teaching could be considered a death sentence for people who cannot or will not follow the Church’s sexual moral theology. This applies even to those who live faithfully within a marriage, but whose partner does not. This is a situation that the bishops of Southern Africa recognised when they tacitly legitimated condom use where a partner is HIV-positive.

So it happens that we as a church, who want to protect life in all circumstances, fail the people. Our intentions are good, but the results are devastating for the people of God.

How do we get out of this vicious cycle? Most bishops and moral theologians have learned to be silent and wait for an answer from Rome. I am sure that among them there is a lot of anguish as they see our people dying, and still feel obliged to wait …

Many Catholics actively involved in the fields of HIV and Aids are keeping silent, but pastorally may contradict the church’s teaching.

Pseudo-scientific explanations from church representatives claiming that condoms are unsafe and that the virus can pass through them are not correct and do not help the -situation.

Counting on abstention alone also has no merit in practise—only the combination of all approaches might bring an end to the spread of the virus.

Accepting the teaching of the church for the moment and just praying that development will take place is also not enough.

Which direction shall we take that is both acceptable to the church’s teaching and supports the people who are on the brink of being infected?

First we must realise that we are not dealing with saints, but with humans. In the long term, trying to enforce ideals that do not reach people does not work. The church is a communion of saints and sinners — we have to serve them all.

Next we might look to other churches and their richness of traditions, valued by our church according to the Vatican II council.

I noted with excitement that our new Pope, Benedict XVI, has stated his willingness to further develop the ecumenical results of this -council. Perhaps we have a first test case here, because time is running out for millions.

The Orthodox Church, our -sister institution, offers us the principle of “oikonomia”. We can describe oikonomia as a consequence of God’s unconditional love for every human being.

This principle accepts that there are rules, but these can be set aside for a specific reason or group of people for the sake of their well-being. This does not mean the end of a rule, but an exception, determined and reasoned by the unconditional love of God and Christ, symbolised and carried -forward by the church.

Oikonomia is the constant realisation of the mystery of God’s love, revealed by Jesus Christ.

Vatican II called on us to read the signs of the time. At a time of HIV/Aids, the sign may be not to enforce greater burden and moral prescriptions on people, but to give them more unconditional love.

Maybe the answer for our church is not to fight the disease with moral arguments, but embrace the syndrome and the people infected and affected with love — a love that doesn’t stop with the provision of care for the sick and dying, but one that abandons judgement and is open to the realities of human interactions in our time.

I want to challenge our theologians to study and discuss this route. And quickly. If we fail to act we are in danger of getting close to what constitutes a sin.

I invite our theologians to visit a shack and hold hands with someone dying of the consequences of Aids.

I invite our theologians to visit shacks and speak to women who do not have primacy over their sexuality, for whom the church’s teaching on sexual morality are not options.

I invite our theologians to visit a woman living with an HIV-positive man and advise her, face-to-face, that she is not allowed to use a condom.

I invite our theologians to talk to youngsters who are sexually active (in South Africa as early as 12 or 13 years) and advise them not to protect themselves because of moral reasons.

I am a simple priest. I am torn by what is preached and what I should preach. I can’t stop hearing the voices of desperation. And I wish that we would contribute, without any doubt, to stopping the spreading of the virus so that we do not have to make an official confession of guilt 50 years later — too late for millions of people.

We need a theology of Aids, we need to incorporate this strong and life-threatening sign of the time into our existing theology. And we have to do this not from the safety of -universities or a curial ivory tower, but coming from the people who suffer.

It is there where we find God and our brother Jesus, the source of our theology.

Stefan Hippler is a Catholic priest who has been involved in HIV/Aids counselling for many years

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