Thursday, November 17, 2005

AIDS, condoms and a Catholic bishop

I have a friend who lives in Nicaragua (an impoverished country in Central America) who likes to remind me what the thinks about the Catholic Church's view on the use of condoms. He claims that one of these days the Church is going to have to admit that they are absolutely essential for the prevention of AIDS, among other things. I fight him tooth and nail about this…

In January, 2005, he sent me a news item out of Spain of a bishop who was calling for the use of condoms to halt the spread of STDs. "I told you so" is all he could say. Well, thankfully, the Church continues to persist in her wisdom, and has not yet (and I assure you nor will she ever) condoned the use of condoms for any reason.

But, less than a year later, another bishop, this time from South Africa, is coming forward with the same claim: condoms stop the spreading of AIDS.

Foreign correspondent to the Chicago Tribune Laurie Goering tells a heart-wrenching tale of the poverty, disease and sin in a village called "Freedom Park" in South Africa. Her story cites extreme poverty of black people, mostly single women with children who find no other way to feed their children than to sell themselves as prostitutes.

The bishop of this area, Bishop Kevin Dowling, is not only a local pusher for condom use, he has become an international icon for Church dissent from the traditional teaching.

Abstinence and faithfulness in marriage, the church's answer to the AIDS epidemic, "are the only way to be sure you won't get infected. I have no problem with that," the controversial South African bishop acknowledges. But in his diocese, full of desperately poor women with few options beyond prostitution to feed their children, using condoms seems to him "a pro-life option in the widest sense."

"For me, the issue is simply this: How do you preserve and protect life?" he said last week at his offices in Phokeng, a poor township on the outskirts of Rustenburg, west of Pretoria. In a diocese like his, he said, "the only solution we have at the moment is condoms."

Dowling believes that in his diocese--and in much of AIDS-afflicted Africa--the primary effect of using condoms would not be contraception but "to stop transmission of a death-dealing virus." Under church doctrine, that is "not only allowable, it's a moral imperative," he said. "The principle is to protect life. I'm fighting for the principle here."

Dowling believes the church's continuing rejection of condoms reflects a lack of firsthand experience with the AIDS epidemic and an inherent conservatism that makes questioning old doctrine unsettling.

"There's a sense of security from black and white," he said. "You can't do this. You can do that. But most of life is gray.

Dowling said he hopes an insertable microbicidal gel that would allow women to effectively kill the virus without their partners knowing the gel was there will eventually come on the market and begin stemming the epidemic.

But for now, AIDS remains "the defining issue of the whole sociocultural fabric," he says. In Rustenburg, with its sick and orphaned and jobless, "there's no doubt HIV-AIDS is going to dominate this society for years to come."

He calls the traditional teaching on contraception as well as the traditional social teaching of care of the elderly an "ivory-tower approach" to the AIDS issue. Sadly, what this bishop is totally missing is the point. In the face of such devastating poverty and disease, the first goal should be providing nutrition and jobs for the people. Jobs are places where work is done and personal rights are respected. Prostitution is not a job, but an illegal action and a violation of and degradation to women.

Next, the government needs to be addressing the prostitution issue sternly by jailing those men who persist in shaming, diseasing and abusing women. The Church should be assisting in this by providing spiritual direction and practical assistance, not give an implied wink-and-nod to the sin by passing out and fighting for condom use.

Also, all the money and effort that it takes to push condoms should be used to set up programs for women to receive housing, food and medical care. It should also be used to help create jobs for men and women so they can learn how to provide for their families.

It is truly a sad situation, but the answer is not, nor will it ever be, to spread condoms.


  1. I totally agree with your friend from Nicaragua and with Bishop Downling.

    The first and main issue to be addressed in such extreme situations should be "how to preserve and protect life".

    I think the way you proposed neither does take into consideration social, cultural nor monetary factors.

    Under such conditions, people don't ask the question how to live the best life; they ask themselves how to survive that day.

    You may be right; prostitution is not a job, it is a mean to feed their children and themselves. Condoms are not a cure; they're a mean for surviving such epidemic.

    Love the topic, but I've got to go,

  2. What about unbelievers?

    Condoms do not have to be about justifying sin, they can simply be about saving the lives of sinners.

    When you're preaching to the choir, preach abstinence, but when you're preaching to prostitutes, you may not have the time to convince them.