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Church and HIV/AIDS

Reflection-action seminar on HIV/AIDS

A reflection-action seminar on Theological, Ethical, Pastoral Aspects of the Russian Orthodox Church's Involvement in Overcoming HIV/AIDS took place on December 24, 2002, at the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations. The seminar was organized jointly by the Department and the Synodal Theological Commission.

The seminar was attended by 35 people including theologians, philosophers, church workers engaged in the diaconal service to the HIV-infected people, as well as physicians, Health Ministry officials, and representatives of international and public healthcare organizations.

Representatives of healthcare organizations, using the latest scientific data, informed the participants in detail about the disease itself, the ways of its transmission, prospects for its treatment, and the scale and pace of its spreading. It was noted in particular that it is almost impossible to contract HIV through every day domestic contacts, which excludes the need to isolate those affected.

The participants considered pastoral and practical problems encountered in the church work with HIV-infected people. Reports were made about specific diaconal initiatives in this work and difficulties faced in it, such as the fact that some church people misunderstand the aims and motives of care for people with HIV.

The work of the seminar resulted in setting up a working group to draft a concept of the Russian Orthodox Church's involvement in overcoming HIV/AIDS and in work with HIV-infected people. The results of the work of the seminar and the establishment of the working group were approved by the ROC Holy Synod.

Address by Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk and Slutsk, Patriarchal Exarch for All Belarus, chairman of the Synodal Theological Commission

Your Eminence,
Honorable Fathers,
Brothers and sisters,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Synodal Theological Commission has organized this reflection-action seminar in cooperation with the Department for External Church Relation to discuss the theme "Theological, Ethical, Pastoral Aspects of the Russian Orthodox Church's Involvement in Overcoming HIV/AIDS". The idea of this seminar did not emerge spontaneously; it was proposed during the discussion of this problem at the 2002 Christmas Readings.

This seminar is described as a reflection-action one. This means that a theoretical study of the biblical, theological and ethical foundations of the Church's attitude to the HIV/AIDS problem should have as its aim an improvement of the church practice with respect to both the church witness expressed in moral preaching and the diaconal social service and pastoral care.

It should be mentioned that the service of both the Synodal Theological Commission and the Department for External Church Relations is special in that it involves both reflection and action. All the theological conferences, plenary sessions, presidium meetings, seminars held by the Commission in recent years, including those shared with the secular scholarship, have been practice-oriented, elaborating recommendation for improving the church witness and service. This was also true for the recent theological conference on Orthodox Teaching on Man. At the same time, the Department for External Relations, involved as it is in the most crucial matters of the Church's relationships with the reality around her, seeks to carry out its mission competently and professionally, mobilizing the best scholarly and theoretical resources for solving problems of church practice. An evidence to this is the fundamental document, the Basic Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, developed by the Department through a profound systematization and theological analysis of the Church's external work for the last half-century.

This way of work in our synodal institutions is most helpful for conducting reflection-action events. If before it was the Synodal Theological Commission that initiated joint theological seminars, now it was a proposal from the Department to conduct a joint seminar on HIV/AIDS, which we have accepted with gratitude.

Even an uninformed person knows today that the spreading of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus has become pandemic for the last two decades in the world and recently in the CIS countries as well. This makes the problem a major threat to the development and very survival of society, that is, a threat to national security.

But even considering the urgency and importance of this problem, a question may be asked: Are there not enough other serious problems in society to demand the attention and concern of the Church? Why should the Church pay attention to this problem, which is outside her terms of reference?

It should be noted that there are different opinions on this point in the church community. And we will set aside some of our working time to discuss it.

Forestalling the discussion, I will observe immediately that focused and intertwined in this theme are all the problems that our society encounters today. These are social and economic problems, problems of public awareness and morality, attitude to the poor and, on a more general plane, to marginalized groups in society, problems involved in the development of legal awareness and law-governed state, the role of state and civil society, problems of worldview and values and many, many others.

An answer to the first question about the motives of the Church's involvement in overcoming the HIV/AIDS epidemic is explicitly connected with the indisputable fact that this problem has appeared as a result of the moral decline of society, growing lack of spirituality, cynicism, inhumanity, and loss of the meaning of life. This is true not only for the ethical norms regulating sexual relations, but also for the loss of fundamental values, resulting in the mass use of drugs.

The Church as an institution does not participate in socio-political activity, of course. The Church is separated from state and dissociated with politics, but she is not at all separated from society and processes taking place in it. The Church believes it her duty to give a moral assessment to developments in society. That is to say, the area where the Church can cooperate with state and society concerns above all the problems of morality and values, with such instruments as assessment, persuasion and appeal at her disposal. It is in this space of direct dialogue with society and state, the space for preaching and appeal, that the Church has at her disposal considerable moral resources for making an impact on the on-going processes. Here she can make interventions to executive and legislative bodies and advocate her positions in public debates including those in the mass media.

This appeal of the Church to the government and society is addressed not only to Christians, but all citizens, for the Church in her appeal to society asserts the fundamental human values and exposes moral degradation and injustice.

In particular, the Church as following the Lord's commandment of love for the neighbour, could raise her voice against the marginalization and stigmatization of the HIV-infected in society. Perhaps, she should tell society directly that the HIV problem is not a problem of a group of people alien to society and deserving only contempt and isolation. It should be stated clearly that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is a disease of the whole society as it reveals the social illnesses and vices that were hidden before the epidemic broke out.

The Church should take very seriously the disturbing possibility of negative attitude that society may show towards the HIV-infected people. It should be seen as a manifestation of the dismal heritage of the totalitarian past with its gregarious morality and xenophobia, on the one hand, and a result of the corrupting cynicism and lawlessness, corruption, crime and worship of profit, on the other, which have become so wide spread in society for the last decade.

The Church should state with all clarity that Russia and the CIS countries have a future only if they develop on the basis of moral principles and become consolidated and spiritually mobilized. That is why the negative or indifferent attitude to the sick is so dangerous: it is an indication of an opposite tendency leading society to self-destruction.

The Church's appeal to society concerning fundamental moral questions is not mission in the strict sense of this word, nor does it mean that the Church should abandon her mission and witness. Clearly, it is only religious motivation that can be a sound foundation of healthy morality and, hence, of a strong society.

The recent years have seen a comprehensive development of the diaconal work and social service of the Church. Normally, this work is carried out by modest ordinary church workers at parish level and the level of sisterhoods. Even before the program for HIV-infected people was launched officially, this work began in some parishes. Now there is a considerable number of church initiatives participating in it. Their proportion is small, of course, in the general amount of tasks, but they may play a considerable role as a good example. Indeed, the success of diaconal initiatives has become possible largely due to the moral motivation and the value of care for the neighbour which prevail in their work.

All the above however concerns rather the external work of the Church, such as moral preaching, mission and social service of those who suffer. No less important is the problem of attitude to people with HIV within the Church herself. This problem includes both distinctive care and the attitude of a community to individual people with the disease and to the problem in general.

This problem however, along with its practical aspects for the Church, includes also a considerable stratum of essentially theological issues.

As I have already mentioned above, the Synodal Theological Commission has initiated a church-wide discussion on anthropological issues. In the course of preparation and conduct of the church-wide conference on the theme "The Teaching of the Church on Man", which took place last November, numerous serious anthropology-rooted problems were exposed as facing the church scholarship and service. I believe it is necessary to emphasize that a considerable number of these issues have a direct bearing on our seminar today.

In particular, this concerns the spiritual meaning of human health and sickness in the context of the goal and meaning of human existence as a whole. In this context, should a disease be regarded as a punishment for a sin, while a healthy condition as a reward for righteousness, and what do Holy Scriptures and Holy Fathers teach on this matter and related issues?

I hope that our theologians will develop this theme in their remarks here.

At a time when society experiences a sort of "anthropological crisis", loosing increasingly a holistic perception of a human being, the clear witness of the Church to the transcendent dignity of human existence, its calling and meaning could become an important factor in consolidating the spiritual foundation of society.

The problems we are to discuss are very serious and large in scope. I am far from the idea that we will be able to solve them all. Our seminar is only a beginning of a serious theological and pastoral analysis of the HIV/AIDS problems. We have to reflect on the already available experience and take it into account, collating it with principal foundations of Orthodox doctrine and moral teaching. This work will certainly take time and effort, but I believe these costs are quite justified. It may be helpful to set up, as a result of our work, a working group to make an in-depth biblical and theological analysis of the theme under discussion today.

In conclusion of this introduction, permit me, on behalf of all the participants, to thank His Eminence Kirill, chairman of the Department for External Church Relations, for cooperation in conducting this seminar, for the help and support in preparing it. We also thank Archimandrite Alexis, father superior of St. Daniel's monastery, for the warm welcome and traditional hospitality. I greet all the participants in the seminar and thank you for your readiness to participate in its work.

I trust that our today's gathering within the walls of St. Daniel's monastery, through the intercession of its heavenly patron, will be completed in peace and unanimity for the benefit of the Holy Orthodox Church and for the glory of God.

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