The writer of Ecclesiastes instructs us that there is "a time to be silent, and a time to speak..." (Eccl. 3:7) I've been thinking about these words lately with respect to our Church leaders. They have yet to learn that you do not have to give a direct answer to every question a reporter puts to you and that some things are better left unsaid.
The Pope's trip to Africa, for example, will be defined and dominated by his unfortunate remark on AIDS and condom use. The moment the word "condom" escaped the Pontiff's lips, the press heard nothing else.
His Holiness could have talked about hunger, poverty and economic justice. He could have highlighted Africa as a place where the Catholic Church is growing significantly, a continent from which young Catholic men and women are coming to America and Europe to serve as priests and religious. I think of Uwem, the Nigerian seminarian who is planning to be ordained in Kentucky and who signed on to the Mexican American Catholic College's Hispanic mini pastoral program to learn how he could better serve the Latino community once he is a priest. I think of Sister Gemma, the young novice from Cameroon we met when we visited the Cordi-Marian Missionary Sisters community in San Antonio.
Africa has a lot to offer the worldwide Catholic Church but the Pope's thoughtless remark reduced the continent to an AIDS ward and his contention that condom use may contribute to the problem is about as absurd as saying that seat belt laws cause auto accidents because people will drive more recklessly knowing that they are protected. Whether or not the Church agrees on moral grounds, medical science has repeatedly demonstrated that the proper use of condoms is an effective way to limit the transmission of AIDS and other STDs. Denying this fact just makes the Church less credible and authoritative.
Furthermore, the Pope's remarks sound like a case of blaming the victim. Africa is trying to control the spread of AIDS and the Church is saying it's going about it the wrong way and making things worse. Meanwhile, over 1.5 million people die of AIDS every year in sub-Saharan Africa and their families could use a word of comfort from the Holy Father, an acknowledgment that lives have been tragically and needlessly lost.
On the other side of the world, in Brazil, a nine-year old girl is raped by her stepfather. As a result she becomes pregnant with twins. Her mother knows that a nine-year old body, even one that has gone through early menarche, is not capable of safely carrying a multiple pregnancy to term. She brings her daughter to get an abortion.
The Archbishop of Recife, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, excommunicated the girl's mother and the medical team that performed the abortion. When asked about his decision, he insisted that he was just upholding God's law, that anyone involved in an abortion who is of age is automatically excommunicated. The stepfather, whose sin caused this tragedy, is in jail...but not excommunicated. Canonically correct? Yes. Pastorally appropriate? No. The Archbishop's actions only added to the family's suffering and shame.
He could have and should have simply deplored the tragic situation, called for prayers for the little girl and her family, prayed for healing for them, and then given them the privacy they need and deserve. He did not have to address the abortion=excommunication question publicly at all.
A time to be silent. In describing Jesus, the Messiah who is to come, the prophet Isaiah says: "A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench." (Is. 42:3). Jesus never kicked a person when they were already down; He never added shame to pain. Our Church leaders could learn a lot from Him.
Photos: Uwem and Gemma, two gifts from Africa to the Catholic Church in America