The Religious Consultation
on Population, Reproductive Health  and Ethics

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Globe and Mail (Canada), April 07, 2007

South African bishop defies Vatican on condoms


It was the women who got to him, he said. It was because of the women that he just couldn't go on as he had.

Kevin Dowling, the Roman Catholic bishop of the diocese of Rustenberg, confided this unrepentantly.

"My passion is for the women," he said. "I'm in that corner."

So who's in the opposing corner?

"The official church," he said with a wry smile.

There are so many women here with stories of pain. Bishop Dowling heard them, and he did what he knew was the right thing: distributed condoms.

It could have cost him his job and the community that has become his life. It hasn't - not yet. But he won't keep quiet, no matter how closely Rome watches, and so that risk is ever present.

Freedom Park is a vast, sun-baked sprawl of 5,000 shacks made of salvaged scraps of tin propped up cheek by jowl. It has no electricity, no water and the streets turn to impenetrable ooze in the rain. It was given its optimistic name with the end of apartheid in 1994, but freedom has in many ways proved elusive: This is just one of a half-dozen squatter camps that are home to 100,000 people near South Africa's border with Botswana.

They sit, literally, in the shadow of platinum mines, dwarfed by the shaft towers and the great heaps of dull grey tailings.

The mines rely on migrant labour, drawing men from Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa's Eastern Cape. The men come for contracts of a year or two, and leave their families at home. They don't earn much, but in a country of 45-per-cent unemployment, they make reasonable wages, enough to buy drinks in the erratically named but hopping Ghetto Tarven and enough to buy female company when they get lonely.

In the wake of the miners come the women, fleeing what they see as dead-end lives in rural villages. Only a handful of them can get jobs at the mine. But they have children to feed, and elderly parents; they need clothes, and money to rent one of the scrap-heap shacks.

"The only way to eat is boyfriends," explained Thembi Maboyana, 38, one of the bishop's dear friends. She came here as a girl of 15. "Today one, tomorrow another one. You go to the shebeen and dance and dance and wait for a boyfriend to come to you, just to buy food or a shack."

It's the ideal environment for the spread of HIV, this vast web of people with overlapping relationships. Surveys have found that nearly half of women here test positive for HIV.

Not long after Kevin Dowling, 63, was made bishop of this diocese 16 years ago, he started making trips out to the camps. In one dim shack after another, he heard the same sorts of stories. He found pregnant women in the last hours of their lives lying on the damp, dirt floors; their babies would be born dead or die after a week or two.

The diocese began its response in 1996 with a small clinic in a shipping container - they called it Tapologo, "the place of rest." Over the years, it has grown to include a school, a day care, a skills-training centre, an ARV clinic that provides life-saving drugs to people with AIDS, and a hospice for those who wait too long and can't be saved. Teams of outreach workers such as Ms. Maboyana visit the sick, counsel new patients and urge people to protect themselves from the virus. How?

"They must use condoms."

And that is how the bishop wound up in the opposite corner from his church. The Vatican forbids the use of condoms in any circumstance; it says the sole way to protect oneself from AIDS is abstinence and fidelity in marriage. Bishop Dowling says that doctrine has no relevance in Freedom Park.

"Abstinence before marriage and faithfulness in a marriage is beyond the realm of possibility here," he said, as a line of miners in helmets and gumboots came off shift and headed into the camp. "The issue is to protect life. That must be our fundamental goal."

And to deny the millions of Catholics who live in AIDS-ravaged East and Southern Africa the use of condoms is to contravene the basic pro-life message of the Church, he said.

At the United Nations special session on HIV-AIDS in 2001, a reporter for a Catholic news service asked Bishop Dowling what position the bishops' conference in southern Africa took on condoms. He replied that the bishops did not yet have a position. The reporter pressed, asking for his personal belief. It was a moment of truth: "I could have obfuscated. But I told him what I believed. And that started the whole thing."

The papal nuncio soon informed him that his views were unacceptable and in conflict with church teaching. Then the bishops' conference condemned his words and took a position: condoms were "an immoral and misguided weapon" in the fight against AIDS and not permitted in any circumstance. A while later, they went even further, saying condoms might actually increase the spread of AIDS by encouraging people to have more sex.

There were two more rebukes from the nuncio. They merely redoubled his conviction.

Abstinence and fidelity are not relevant to most of the people of Freedom Park, he said. "It doesn't work for this environment and this is just a microcosm of sub-Saharan Africa," he said. "It is very difficult to start making demands that are very difficult or impossible to fulfill."

The Tapologo project offers women training in beadwork and crafts and bread-making. But there is a limited market for bread or beads around here, and it won't be a solution to the poverty and joblessness any time soon.

Nor will the cultural mores that leave women powerless - and encourage men to have multiple partners - change overnight. Bishop Dowling is all in favour of working to end those things, but it won't happen fast, and until then, condoms are the only way to stop transmission.

"The problem for thinking Catholics is that a lot of this stuff doesn't make sense." The bishop feels the church leadership is obsessed with sexual morality and disregards the political and economic injustice that land people in Freedom Park in the first place.

After his first comments on condoms, a worried friend remarked to the bishop's mother that now he would never be made a cardinal. His mother replied that it didn't matter since he hadn't particularly wanted to be a bishop in the first place. ("I was called and told, and really, one can't say no," the Pretoria-born Bishop Dowling recalled of his appointment, which came while he was working in Rome.) Despite his quiet defiance, the Vatican has not asked him to resign. It may be that Rome feels that it's not worth drawing attention to him - "I am small prey, a mere bishop in a rural diocese in the bottom of Africa" - and yet it may also be that Rome knows the issue can't be resolved by quashing one maverick priest.

Bishop Dowling said he has had "a personal groundswell of support," messages from many ethicists and theologians, clergy and lay, who are also wrestling with this issue. He is known, in southern Africa, as "the AIDS bishop," the man who has said clearly that the pandemic, and fighting it, ought to be the focus of the church here; there are many who admire his stand, and other priests and nuns who quietly give out condoms across the region.

In Freedom Park, no one thinks too much about the incongruity of a Catholic bishop advocating condom use. "He helps us to save people," Ms. Maboyana said simply, as the tall, thin bishop made his way along the clinic lineup, quietly greeting people in Setswana.

Bishop Dowling has myriad responsibilities in the diocese, but it is clearly the AIDS work that is closest to his heart. He rarely leaves home without popping in to the hospice, a short trip down a bush-lined dirt track from his residence. And yet there is a terrible tension between his commitment to his work and his deep connection to his Catholic faith.

"I struggle; I use intravenous Jack Daniels," he said with a chuckle, before turning serious again.

"Condoms are symptomatic of so much else," he said, musing on the disconnect between the Church leadership and the lives of so many of its faithful.

"As a church, we had the opportunity after Vatican II to develop a theology and a philosophy coming out of the reality of people's lives, but once you allow the reality to interrogate your assumptions, once dialogue is open, you enter a scary scenario where you are no longer in control of where you will go." The Vatican has chosen control, he said.

This past week, three patients at the Tapologo hospice died - including a 14-year-old girl called Krista who was born with HIV and was much loved by all the staff. Bishop Dowling called it "the worst week we've ever had." Behind the comforting words he offered the nurses and other patients was a hint of anger, anger at such unnecessary deaths.

Leaving the clinic, the bishop was embraced by each of the stout nursing sisters, and his friend, Ms. Maboyana.

"My church is the people of God. My personal faith is enriched by community, by people," he said. The fighting over doctrine, "it isn't life-giving, it isn't the Jesus I believe in." So he will keep on. "So long as they leave me alone . . ."

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