S. African Catholics Aren't Practicing What Pope Preached

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 9, 2005

JOHANNESBURG, April 8 -- Luyanda Ngonyama is no casual Catholic. Raised in a religious family in a gritty township, he dreamed of becoming a priest and spent three years in religious training before choosing a different path. As a lay person, he worked for this city's diocese and for the region's conference of bishops.

Yet here in the epicenter of the world's AIDS pandemic, he could not abide what he considers the church's deadly opposition to condoms. A few months ago, he left his job with the bishops conference and joined South Africa's most influential AIDS activist group, the Treatment Action Campaign. The group is a vocal advocate of condoms as essential to curbing the spread of HIV.

"Once you see one or two stories, these people who would have been saved had they used a condom, then you have a conflict," said Ngonyama, 32. "The reality is, people enjoy sex, even outside marriage."

Ngonyama and other South African Catholics who support the use of condoms as a means of AIDS prevention -- a group that includes priests, nuns and at least one bishop -- contend their views do not necessarily contradict those of the late Pope John Paul II, who strenuously opposed artificial means of contraception. Instead, they see condoms as a tool to prevent the spread of a disease that is killing millions of people; any contraceptive effect is not a valid part of the debate.

Viewed in that way, many Catholics here say that condom use should be encouraged by a church whose core doctrine is respect for the sanctity of human life. A similar argument is employed by church officials in allowing the use of contraceptive pills to remedy irregular menstrual cycles, which can affect fertility.

"The bottom line is to be pro-life, consistently pro-life, from conception until death," said Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenberg, South Africa, perhaps the best-known Catholic advocate for condom use in South Africa. "We can't save all lives, but we can save some lives through the use of condoms."

He and other Catholics who support condom use share the Vatican's view that abstinence before marriage and fidelity within marriage are the best ways to prevent the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. They also generally agree that the underlying cause of HIV's rapid spread -- one in five working-age adults in South Africa has the virus -- is sexual promiscuity.

Yet faced with the extent of AIDS here, many Catholics acknowledge not enough people heed the church's message on sexual morality to slow the spread of the disease. That forces a dilemma on church leaders: Some have concluded that they have no moral choice but to advocate condoms as the practical way to prevent infection.

Supporters of that position contend the South African Catholic Bishops Conference made a similar argument in a 2001 statement stating that condom use by married couples was a matter of conscience in cases where one partner had HIV.

"The Church accepts that everyone has the right to defend one's life against mortal danger. This would include using the appropriate means and course of action," the statement said.

Top Catholic leaders here have since made clear that this exception was not to be taken broadly and that another section of the statement said using condoms "goes against human dignity."

But many people lower in the church hierarchy have concluded that the logic of the doctrine for married couples should apply equally to those who are not married or to those who are married but don't know whether they or their spouse have HIV.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company