An African View of Church and HIV

Interview With Founder of Nairobi-Based AIDS Network

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ROME, NOV. 29, 2010 (Zenit.org).- The Catholic Church is Africa's primary caregiver for AIDS victims, and for African men, women and children who are suffering the disease, the Church is not just a service provider -- it is a Mother.



This is the impression shared by Jesuit Father Michael Czerny, founder of the African Jesuit AIDS Network.

The Canadian priest established the network in 2002 as a means to help Jesuits in Africa address the issue of HIV/AIDS. Now Father Czerny is in Rome, working as an assistant to one of the most high-profile Africans in the Vatican: Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

In this interview given to the television program "Where God Weeps" of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, Father Czerny speaks about the way the Church cares for AIDS victims and why its work is so little recognized.

Q: What got you first started in this work of HIV?

Father Czerny: I was working as the Secretary for Social Justice at our Jesuit headquarters in Rome and a few Jesuits in Africa raised the alarm about the AIDS pandemic at the turn of the millennium. And so, here in Rome, we worked for two years with colleagues in Africa to come up with an approach, and that approach was to include a network of support and encouragement and communications. That is how the African Jesuit AIDS network was founded in mid-2002 and I left my work in Rome and went to Nairobi to direct that network.

Q: Who do you think of when you think of HIV/AIDS?

Father Czerny: Sometimes I think of the people I first heard of back home in Canada who were suffering so much with so much fear and confusion during the late 80s and the early 90s, but now I think of the different people in Africa. Maybe I would especially mention Rosanna, a young HIV-positive woman, who first had a son who is negative, then gave birth to a positive daughter whom she lost, then was abandoned by her husband, was thrown out by her family and is struggling to bring up her boy. She is living as positively as she can with a firm commitment to live as long as she can so that she can see her son through school and get a good start in life. I admire her and I feel that she is the kind of person whom we would like to -- in a sense -- promote. We hope that everybody with HIV would have the positive attitude that Rosanna has.

Q: The Catholic Church is often pilloried, if you will, for it’s position on HIV/AIDS and yet few realize how important the work of the Catholic Church is as a caregiver for HIV/AIDS victims. Can you tell us a little bit about this?

Father Czerny: Certainly. The worldwide Church is the major caregiver for those who are HIV positive and those who are suffering from AIDS as well as also caring for those affected -- especially widows, orphans and others who are carrying the burden. So there is a wide range of work that the Church does.

If you look at it medically, perhaps worldwide, the Church offers 25% of AIDS services. My guess is that the average in Africa is closer to 40%, maybe even 50%. The further away you get from the big cities, the closer it gets to 100%. Often the only AIDS services in the remote areas are the Church clinics.

Q: What are we talking about when we talk about care giving?

Father Czerny: Since HIV and AIDS is not only an infection or sickness but also an enormous cultural, personal, family, social and spiritual problem, what the Church can do, and what I think we can be proud of as a Church, is that we address the whole person and not just the infection -- not just the medical part. So an HIV-positive person can look to the Church for a wide range of care and support that can be summed up as being accepted as a person and encouraged to continue to live as fully as possible, as long as possible, and not to allow HIV/AIDS to be a death sentence.

Q: How would an African view the work of the Church in this caregiving area?

Father Czerny: I think many Africans would say: “The Church was with us before AIDS. The Church is now generously with us during AIDS and the Church will be with us after AIDS." In that sense the Church is not seen so much as a provider of projects or as a service provider but as that reality that we call “Mother”: The mother who is there and has always been there and will be there as long as she is needed.

You know the Church in Africa calls herself the family of God in Africa; that is the definition coming from the first synod on Africa and so I would say that basically the Church deals with HIV and AIDS as a family. We try to make everyone feel that they are part of a family, whether they are in need of care or whether they are in a position to offer some kind of care.

Q: You once used Matthew 8:3 -- He stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, "I will do it. Be made clean." His leprosy was cleansed immediately -- as an example of the Church’s approach to HIV infection and support. Can you tell us why you chose this particular example?

Father Czerny: Gladly. You had this leper who, first of all, dared to approach Jesus -- which in itself was against the law -- and he challenged him saying: “If you want to you can heal me," and Jesus did two things. He said: “I want to” and he reached out and touched him and healed him.

In this very short scene, we have many dimensions of AIDS care, of true pastoral ministry. The first: “Of course I want to," is this readiness to help. Someone who is in deep trouble and very upset, and perhaps very cruelly rejected by everyone on whom he has ever counted, can turn to the Church and knows that there will be a positive response. There will be no judgment. There will be no calculation and the answer is: “Of course we want to." Secondly, we reach out and touch. I think that's the most fundamental gesture in response to AIDS.

Q: So Christ, through the Church, has touched people?

Father Czerny: A person who has, especially recently, heard they have an HIV positive diagnosis feels as good as dead -- feels inhuman, and unfortunately society, culture and sometimes even family, will treat that person as dead. They say: “You no longer exist for us. You are dead. Go away. Don’t show your face again." So the person feels dead and feels inhuman and there is nothing that can convince a person otherwise in that situation. Then think of a child suffering and in trouble and of the effect on their humanity, their worth, and dignity in being touched, being embraced. Furthermore there was a very strong cultural and medical taboo against touching a leper. Jesus broke through that, worrying less about the danger of infection and being more concerned with reaching the person and giving that touch, that healing touch. And that’s what people will say: “When I first found out that I was [HIV] positive I was dead and now I feel alive." And some people will even go further and say: “Before I became positive I was wasting my life. I was throwing my life away by my misbehavior. Now, unfortunately I’m HIV positive, but now I’m really living and I’m living my life responsibly for my family -- if I have one -- and for others."

Q: Pope Benedict XVI sparked a controversy when he suggested that condoms were not the solution to the AIDS problem in Africa. Why the controversy? What happened there?

Father Czerny: There is a “truth” that people hang on to, which is that if a couple decides to use a condom and one of them is positive, and they use the condom consistently and correctly, that will reduce their chances of infection. It will with a couple. But then people think: “Well, if one condom was good for one couple then a million condoms must be good for the population of a town or of a city," and that is not true.

Statistics bear out the fact that the wide distribution of condoms as a prevention strategy does not succeed. It does not bring down the rate, and this is what the Holy Father said. He didn’t deny that a condom might be useful sometimes. What he denied was that the promotion of condoms, as a primary prevention strategy, does not succeed. It does not achieve its objective. It does not bring down the average rate of HIV in the population. But people got very agitated because they didn’t study and listen carefully to what he said and because they are not well informed and because there is a lot of ideology and emotion and interest behind this whole issue, and so there was a lot of controversy.

Q: Dr. Edward Green, director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, said that as a scientist, he was amazed to see the closeness between what the Pope said in Cameroon and the results of the most recent scientific discoveries. He affirmed that the condom does not prevent AIDS; only responsible sexual behavior can address the pandemic.

Now you mentioned briefly the question of ideology. Are we talking also about a discrepancy of values between our sexuality -- the lifestyle that we have chosen in Western civilization -- and the cultural values on continents such as Africa? Is there a cultural gap that is going on here?

Father Czerny: Yes, there is a gap between what is now considered normal or acceptable in globalized culture: the culture of media, of advertising, of marketing. Those values are in sharp tension with traditional Catholic values and with traditional African values.

Perhaps we could sum up the cultural value of globalized culture regarding sexuality as the reliance -- and I would say the promotion -- of the idea of mutual consent. That is to say that the norm for sexual behavior is the consent of the two participants and as long as the two participants are beyond the minimum age and freely consent, then there is no other norm to be applied. That’s, I think, the thrust of what globalized culture promotes regarding sexuality. So as long as you and the other one agree, that’s fine and nobody is to question that.

The idea that we have in the Church and the idea that we have in Africa is that there are other norms and that those norms don’t depend only on you and me: They depend on our family, they depend on our community, they depend on our parish, they depend on our nation maybe even on our tribe. That idea is in opposition because in Africa, and in traditional Catholic morality, it’s not just what you and I agree on that makes it right, there are other norms and those norms in fact are meant to orient what you and I will do, or not do, at certain moments in our lives with certain persons. So there the difference is very sharp.

It wasn’t talked about in connection with the controversy, but I’m quite sure that is the real issue; that the Pope represents a set of norms about sexuality that we don’t want to accept because they are more demanding. They are also more life-giving and they, finally, produce more happiness. But in the short run they seem to be more demanding than simply two of us agreeing on what we want to do.

Q: So, abstinence. Fidelity. These are in fact what the African bishops stated: This is the road to greater happiness, the greater good.

Father Czerny: That’s right. We say this not because we thought of it yesterday but this has been our experience and this has been the experience of every serious culture; that sexuality is a great gift, a wonderful thing which, in order to be appreciated and used properly, requires discipline, requires norms, requires the recognition that everything is not always possible and this is, as I say, a long-standing human wisdom but it goes against the principles of entertainment and marketing and so we’re having a conflict.

Q: Do you ever get angry or frustrated with, perhaps, what you could consider a wrong-headed approach? If we understand that the condom solution is not the solution -- it’s a lot of money and a lot of time and a lot of effort being driven to a direction that doesn’t seem to be providing the answers?

Father Czerny: That’s true. It’s too bad but it’s not something really to get all that angry about. The fact is that HIV is a challenge for everyone and in Africa it’s a challenge practically in every community and in some places in every family. I think it is going to take time to face it and, yes, the massive promotion of condoms is a destruction. It’s not meeting the problem and it’s not helping, but unfortunately it is not the only example of wrong-headed approaches imposed on Africa and Africa has survived other mistaken policies and it will survive this one also.

But my hope is that with the kind of teaching that the Holy Father has given that we will make progress and progress consists, secondarily, in improved statistics. The real success is when young people are able to live their sexuality more responsibly. When married couples live their sexuality more responsibly, and where, as I said earlier, the family of God faces AIDS as a family -- that, I think, is a sign of God at work in Africa.

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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