See the Divine Light in Others
Guest editorial by Fr Stefan Hippler
Every year on World Aids Day, December 1, we are reminded of the plight of the more than 34 million people living with HIV/Aids and — depending where they live — also dying of causes related to the syndrome.
The message we receive every year on World Aids Day remains the same: We have made strides, but it is not over. Even if in Europe the pandemic is under control, infection rates in many countries are rising again.
In South Africa increasing numbers of people are on treatment, but the new-infection rates remain too high, despite all prevention work.
It is particularly worrying that thousands of young girls in our country are infected every month, with acute health consequences.
This is alarming, even in the face of some hopeful signs in the mother-to-child transmission rate, down from 33% to under 4%, depending on the region.
Yet, research shows babies born HIV-negative from an HIV-positive mother are nonetheless very vulnerable to other health problems, with a higher mortality rate in the first years. This places an additional burden on the already weak national health system.
Apart from the medical considerations, HIV/Aids has in many ways also challenged the Church’s teachings and disciplines — and the imprecise interpretation of these.
From absurd suggestions that the disease is God’s punishment for immorality to the debatable location of condoms as a preventative means in the context of Humanae Vitae, the institutional Church has struggled — and at times still struggles — to reconcile the call for compassion for the sick with the various interpretations of moral teachings.
Priest-activists and bishops have struggled to make sense of that, and to balance teaching and practice — and some still do today.
Wherever one stands, there is a growing general acknowledgment of the challenge to reconcile doctrine and mercy.
And this challenge remains valid today and may come into even sharper focus in the context of the struggles our Church faces now in light of the sex abuse scandal.
There is also the question of whether and how we catch up with modern science regarding human sexuality, and whether we allow for an honest debate on matters arising from developing insights.
World Aids Day 2018 should serve as a reminder to confront all these questions.
During this year’s World Aids Conference, held in Amsterdam, the discussion centred on what and who is driving the pandemic worldwide. The answer pointed to challenges which we, as Church, must face as well.
The most vulnerable groups identified were gay people in the so-called First World; women in the underdeveloped and developing world; intravenous drug users; male and female escorts and prostitutes; bisexual men; and migrants in general.
These groups present us, as Church, with a challenge in terms of gender equality (and specifically the emancipation of women to exercise autonomy over their sexuality), diversity of sexuality, people who live outside the norms of society, and so on.
If we truly believe that every human being is made in the likeness of God, then we have to discern what that means for the way we are dealing with those issues referred to above.
Do we allow those living “human question marks” of God’s creation to challenge us — as an institution but also as individual Christians — to look deeper, to understand deeper, to love deeper, to develop a deeper relationship with our brothers and sisters carrying the same divine light in them as we do?
World Aids Day is much more than a question of medical or behavioural considerations. It challenges us to look at uncomfortable questions concerning our authentic discipleship; questions which we might prefer to avoid.
So thanks be to God that there are observances such as World Aids Day to remind us of realities and to challenge us.
Fr Stefan Hippler is the chair of the Aids-care organisation HOPE Cape Town.