AIDS Crisis Shapes Bishop's Stance

By Nora Boustany
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

South African Bishop Kevin Dowling knows where his dissenting views come from. He supports access to condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS because of his work in the slums of Rustenburg, home to the richest platinum mines in the world.

His parishes in Rustenburg, about 65 miles northwest of Johannesburg, try to help vulnerable women -- economic refugees who are forced into "survival sex." The mines run men's hostels for their highly paid workers living away from their families. So there are single miners who have money and single mothers who cannot get jobs, he explained.

"Because of my experience, I began to question as a Catholic church leader the perceived notions," he said in an interview Monday. "I don't undermine the veracity of abstinence before marriage and loyalty among couples. But what about the vulnerable women who don't have that option? What about realizing that the official church in circumstances of human living does not respond to that reality?"

The use of condoms, he said, has been viewed as a sexual morality issue in the Catholic Church. But to him, he said, "it is more of a justice and ethical issue -- the right to life, the protection and dignity of life, a pro-life stand from conception to death."

Dowling was in Washington this week to address a forum on the issue sponsored by Physicians for Human Rights. Although he is the only one among South Africa's 30-strong Council of Bishops to take a stand in favor of condom access, his peers understand that he is struggling with the question. "I would not say I am the black sheep," he said. "I am just different."

South Africa has more than 6 million people who are HIV-positive, the largest such population of any country in the world. There are 1,700 new infections each day, according to the State Department.

Dowling said he was heartened by statements from distinguished cardinals in the Vatican and in a book by Jesuit ethicists in Boston that are beginning to take exception on the condom issue. Over the years, abstinence, fidelity, inculcating the value of life in young people and a strong condemnation of the use of condoms have been firm positions of church leaders.

However, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini , the liberal alternative in last year's papal election, said publicly last week that when one member of a couple has HIV-AIDS, which could pass to the partner, the use of the condoms is "a lesser evil."

The former archbishop of Milan dropped the bombshell in an interview with the Italian weekly L'Espresso in which he said all available means must be pursued in the drive against AIDS. On Monday, in an interview in the newspaper La Repubblica, Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan , the head of the Pontifical Council on Health Pastoral Care, said Pope Benedict XVI had asked him to prepare a report on the issue. Barragan, in effect the Vatican's health minister, said, "This is a very difficult and delicate subject that requires prudency."

Unlike Martini's reconsideration of the ban, Dowling's stance would not restrict condom use to couples in which one partner is infected.

"You should come up with a position which makes sense and which is in sync with the values we espouse, a nonjudgmental God and the infinite worth of a human being," Dowling said. "Moral injunctions do not help people. I think all this calls for a rethink and the acceptance of an authentic pro-life stance. The issue becomes: How do you protect life in this pandemic?"

He said it was important for the credibility of the church to be there for everyone. "Once it is possible in a moral principle to make room to save lives," he said, "my position extends to women and girl children who are subject to all kinds of abuse."

"Abstinence is fine as an ideal, but it does not work in all circumstances," he added. "We have to try a more holistic approach, a theology and possibility for people to encounter God right within their situation."

Although the apostolic nuncio in South Africa has mentioned to him in informal conversations that he had strayed from the official line, Dowling said he did not regret going public. "I think it has occasioned a lot of discussion," he said. Dowling also referred to a book, "Catholic Ethicists on HIV/AIDS Prevention," edited by James Keenan and Jon Fuller , two Jesuit priests who argue that easing the ban should have been settled by the church 20 years ago. He also mentioned Cardinal Godfried Daneels from Brussels, who spoke out two years ago in favor of allowing some condom use.

"I believe high-profile people are creating a climate of debate so we can be more authentic in facing communities on the ground," Dowling said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company