National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  January 9, 2004

Bishop Kevin Dowling
-- CNS/Tod Plitt
S. African bishop presses case for condoms despite hierarchical resistance

For 13 years Bishop Kevin Dowling has seen hundreds die in his diocese of Rustenburg, South Africa. At their funerals no one names the reason for their death -- not even at the burials of very young AIDS victims.

“Fear, stigma, denial are all powerfully present even though the vast majority of the community is faith-based,” said Dowling, a Redemptorist who has called on his brother bishops in the Southern Africa Conference of Catholic Bishops to modify church teaching on condoms.

He has not succeeded. Nevertheless he keeps making his case as the specter of AIDS continues to infect more than 5.3 million South Africans -- one in five adults -- and claims 600 lives daily. The nation has 1 million AIDS orphans. In nearby Botswana and Swaziland, the rate of infection is almost 40 percent.

“We have to debate the issue of condom use, because the pandemic is so devastating that hundreds of thousands of people, especially women, are facing death,” Dowling told NCR in a Nov. 17 interview in New York, where he was a panelist at a global AIDS forum hosted by the Catholic Medical Mission Board.

Dowling said he endorses the “ABCs” of abstinence, being faithful to one partner and living in a committed relationship, but noted that this is only possible in a “regular” or freely chosen partnership. When someone is forced into prostitution in order to eat or when a woman cannot refuse her spouse and transmission of the AIDS virus is likely, the bishop said, she ought to be able to safeguard her life by using a condom and microbicides.

Wearing a condom to protect one’s life or the life of one’s partner is not the same as using it to prevent new life, Dowling said. When used to shield the body from the AIDS virus, a condom is not a contraceptive, he added, and thus does not conflict with traditional church teaching.

Dowling said he is encouraged by support he has received from theologians. The Southern African bishops’ conference remains firmly opposed to their use, but the bishops have “opened the door” a crack in the case of “discordant couples,” he said, allowing a partner to make “an informed choice” if the other partner is infected with the deadly virus.

Dowling also pointed to “the new heroines of our world,” the volunteer women who do the bulk of the caring for dying AIDS sufferers. AIDS victims become “utterly sacred” in the lives of these caretakers, Dowling said. They prepare them to go to God, “who will hold his arms open to welcome them. In this way they can die in peace.”

-- Patricia Lefevere

National Catholic Reporter, January 9, 2004

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