by Joan Chittister
From Where I Stand National Catholic Reporter [U.S.] Mar. 21, 2012
"There is meaning in every journey," Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "that is unknown to the traveler." I travel a great deal. Trust me: Bonhoeffer knew of which he spoke. That statement is not only true, it is life-changing. When we learn what we are not looking for, that kind of education reshapes the soul. I know that's true because it just happened again a little while ago.
In what we once called "mission territory," in an African land only sparsely Christian where the presence of the church is built on the works staffed and subsidized for years by religious congregations that were basically white, basically European, I got a whole new look at life. These are people whose congregations have been in an area for decades before the place was even on a map. They know its customs and taboos. They know its internal history. It was a place where people had no experience of any other way to live until white business interests came promising them wealth and development.
"How are things going here?" I asked the two sisters. The school was twice as large as it had been when I was here last, they said. The novitiate had grown. People came to the clinic by the hundreds. They were opening another clinic, they smiled, further out in the valley with a surgeon and a resident anesthesiologist. "What kinds of cases do you see most?" I asked.
There was a pause, a lowering of the voices. "We get so many cases of AIDS," they said sadly. "Most of the cases are women now. More women than men. And the children, of course, who are born with it."
"But why the women?" I pressed them. "Well," the older sister went on, "the men are taken to work sites for long periods and so the companies bring in women to ... to 'service' them, you know," she said, looking at me again to be sure I understood what they meant. "Then they come back and infect the wife. Condoms -- are not allowed.'
I groaned inwardly. There had been a flurry in November 2010, when the pope was understood to have mused about the use of condoms to avoid infection. Many theologians, some very prominent bishops and an international body of health care personnel had applauded the move. But by the next day, of course, Vatican spokesmen had "clarified" the statement to mean that it had simply reasserted a continuing ban on the use of condoms in any situation, all serious dissent from every level of the church across the world notwithstanding.
"Why?" I said, thinking out loud and looking out over their heads to the throngs outside. "Explain to me why my church allows these women and their children to die rather than insist that these men use condoms. Are women's lives expendable? Is the morality of contraception greater than the morality of life? How can they call that kind of theology holiness and the people who have doubts about it heretics for having the effrontery to ask an obvious question?"
The conversation had gone dumb, gone mute. The nuns said nothing. Nothing at all. But when I looked up, to my eternal wonderment, I saw that they both had tears in their eyes.
"They know," I thought. "They know." From where I stand, that was the new insight discovered in this journey that changed the way I see life.