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USF honors dissenting South African bishop
June 10th, 2009
By Michael Vick

Jesuit Father Stephen Privett, president of the University of San Francisco, stirred up controversy May 22 with his presentation of an honorary degree to a South African bishop who has defied the Vatican by promoting the use of condoms in some cases. USF honored Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg, South Africa at its undergraduate commencement ceremony to "draw attention to the millions in South Africa and around the world who are living with HIV/AIDS," read the honorary degree citation.


Bishop Dowling has worked in HIV/AIDS care and prevention since 1992. His diocese runs a clinic, school, day care facility, skills-training center and hospice facility to care for vast shanty communities that grew in the shadow of a local platinum mine.


Bishop Dowling first drew public attention in 2001 when a reporter asked him his opinion on condom usage to fight HIV. His response drew the ire of the papal nuncio to South Africa and his own bishops' conference, though Bishop Dowling has received no official reprimand and continues to serve as bishop in good standing.


In a May 5 statement, the Congolese bishops' conference called condom use ineffective, and said it is "not only an ethical disorder but above all the proof of the trivialization of sexuality in our society." In an interview after his commencement speech, Bishop Dowling said he agreed with his fellow bishops, at least in part.


To be sure, the bishop takes a nuanced position on condom usage. Bishop Dowling told Catholic San Francisco he supports Church teaching on sexuality, saying "abstinence before marriage and faithfulness to a single partner within a stable marriage relationship is obviously the only failsafe way of preventing yourself from being infected with HIV."


The bishop said he promotes abstinence and marital faithfulness especially with children and young adults, running educational and behavior modification programs to teach people to make proper choices in all areas of life, including sexuality.


But he said the reality in Africa is far from the ideal.


"We can promote those values, and they work pretty well in the context where a person has a security net," Bishop Dowling said. "Unfortunately, extreme poverty is driving particularly vulnerable young women to extreme positions. They are forced into transactional sex."


Bishop Dowling said with the South African economy in shambles, many unemployed women wind up in the slums around the mine. They come looking for jobs, though many are illegal immigrants and cannot secure proper identification. With so many searching for employment, even citizens have difficulty finding work. In order to feed themselves and their children, the bishop said women feel compelled to take one of the only options open to them: prostitution.


"For me, that is a profound injustice," he said.


The bishop said men in the society, even some professing Catholics, completely disregard Church teaching on abstinence before and faithfulness within marriage. Bishop Dowling said miners either infect local women, or contract HIV from them and return home to infect their unsuspecting wives.


"In this context, to discuss sexuality and the use or not of condoms purely within the realm of personal moral choice is not exhibiting honesty and integrity in facing the fact that this is a far from ideal situation," Bishop Dowling said.


Bishop Dowling said the Church need not and should not distribute condoms, as they are readily available from the government. But, he said full, non-judgmental education about the disease and methods of preventing its spread, including the use of condoms for those who engage in sexual activity, has saved and will save lives.


"The Catholic Church, after governments, is doing the most creative and wonderful work across the board in terms of health care, clinics, hospices, orphan care, in-patient units and so on," Bishop Dowling said. "All that gets lost, particularly in the media, because of the perceptions about the Church's approach to condoms."


In an interview prior to the commencement ceremony, Father Privett told Catholic San Francisco he invited Bishop Dowling to USF to honor his work and that of the wider Catholic Church in Africa.


"HIV/AIDS is an epidemic in his diocese and in whole areas of Africa," Father Privett said. "I think people need to understand the difference between a condom as a contraceptive and a condom preventing the spread of a deadly virus that is literally killing thousands of people in Africa."


The Jesuit said Catholic universities should provide the Church with a forum for changing society constructively through conversation.


"Catholic universities show the country a more engaging model of change than the defensive ‘We won't talk to anybody who doesn't agree with us' model," Father Privett said. "The gospel calls all of us to be a leaven in society. You can't leaven society if you stay in a drawer."


The university is no stranger to controversial speakers and events. San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, a vocal proponent of same-sex marriage, was its May 23 graduate commencement speaker. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Catholic who favors abortion rights, addressed business school graduates in May 2007.


The school has also come under fire for continuing to show the play "The Vagina Monologues," which contains graphic descriptions of rape and homosexual acts.


"When we bring these speakers onto campus, we don't bring them as spokespersons for a position with which we disagree," Father Privett said, adding that critics do not consider the totality of student experiences when they accuse USF of not supporting Church teaching. "They only see the commencement speaker or ‘The Vagina Monologues.' They don't see the other 240 days. They're not at Sunday liturgies. They're not at student retreats. It's the tip and not the whole iceberg."


Others, including at least one USF professor, believe the school's Catholic character has eroded under Father Privett's leadership. Philosophy professor Raymond Dennehy said the dialogue Father Privett said he hopes to encourage is presented in a one-sided manner on campus, with most guest speakers dissenting against Church teaching.


"Dialogue is having speakers both pro and con," Dennehy said. "This is giving an award, and you can bet your bottom dollar that (USF) would not do that if (the speaker) were anti-gay marriage."


Dennehy said he agreed with Church teaching on condom usage.


"If people have condoms, they think they are impervious and are more inclined to engage in reckless behavior," Dennehy said.


Dennehy said the university has set out to form a Catholic identity separate from the Church's teaching on issues like abortion and homosexuality, citing examples like the invitation of Pelosi and the appointment to head of campus ministry of Jesuit Father Donal Godfrey, an outspoken proponent of gay-friendly theology.


"Calling USF a Catholic school is like saying Hillary Clinton is a Carmelite nun," Dennehy said. "USF has chosen to go its own way, and there is no one here to stop them. What is Catholic teaching? What is the so-called ‘institutional Church' if we don't have to pay attention to it?"


From June 12, 2009 issue of Catholic San Francisco.

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