Globe and Mail
(Canada), April 07, 2007
African bishop defies Vatican on condoms
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.
Dowling, the Roman Catholic bishop of the diocese of Rustenberg, confided this
passion is for the women," he said. "I'm in that corner."
who's in the opposing corner?
official church," he said with a wry smile.
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.
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.
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.
sit, literally, in the shadow of platinum mines, dwarfed by the shaft towers and
the great heaps of dull grey tailings.
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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?
must use condoms."
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.
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
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,
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."
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.
were two more rebukes from the nuncio. They merely redoubled his conviction.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
struggle; I use intravenous Jack Daniels," he said with a chuckle, before
turning serious again.
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.
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.
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.
the clinic, the bishop was embraced by each of the stout nursing sisters, and
his friend, Ms. Maboyana.
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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