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Conscience Magazine

The Conscience Interview with Bishop Kevin Dowling

By Conscience April 2, 2019

Bishop Kevin Dowling sat down with Conscience to map out the necessary components for a healthy future church: bearing witness to suffering, openness to constructive dialogue, and a deep respect for the free and creative work of the Spirit. Dowling became an outspoken opponent of the church’s ban on condoms after witnessing firsthand the plight of sex workers in the mining towns of South Africa. In 1996, he opened the first of what would become a network of clinics across the country.


Kevin Dowling: You have to begin in every situation—what is your story? What are your feelings? What has been your experience? What in your journey in life has brought you to this moment or perhaps to this crisis in your life, if you’re struggling with some serious problem?

Tell the story. Unpack that story. And then, if you’re a believing person, in the scriptures or in your experience of God, what is God saying to you? Is there a scripture text or a happening from the scriptures, from the Word of God, that is relevant, that touches this situation? In other words, what is God saying to you about this? And do that in faith.

And then, looking at the experience and what you believe God is saying to you, enter into that far more deeply. Start reflecting about that. Don’t make any hasty decisions. Just let that deepen within your spirit. And then, looking at your whole value system in your life—your personal value system, which has been informed by faith, but also by multiple experiences in your life, both good and suffering experiences—what has created that value system by which you live?

Then start that process of discernment, discerning. What is God calling me to be in this situation? Not necessarily only to do, but to be. How do I most truly live who I am in what I’m trying to discern about what I should do?


Our role as pastors is to open the door so that [individuals] can continue growing, can continue on their journey and not be held back by a false sense of guilt. We could easily preach a very hard line, a dogmatic approach. We’ve got to find ways to enable people just to see: “Yeah, I’m struggling, but God is not judging me, and God is not asking the impossible of me. God is taking me where I am and inviting me to go further, however long that takes.”

For me, that is what discernment is all about. You can maybe make a little step forward and not reach the end goal, but [still] be part of the ongoing journey. That is what I would say is the fruit of discernment—what is truly life-giving.


[You must consider] your total context, the context of your life, because your decisions impact all of that. I find this very meaningful—and it has certainly been part of the decisions I’ve made—particularly [with regards to] the HIV pandemic, and particularly around the issue for which I became infamous, which was the issue of condoms.

Conscience: For you, your process of discernment led you to believe that condoms are an important part of an HIV prevention process.

Kevin Dowling: Yes.


Kevin Dowling: I came here as a bishop in January 1991. That was right at the start of the political transition in South Africa.

[There were] farmworkers [who fled] the farms in this area because of brutal treatment. They took refuge here. And through lawyers, we got a settlement with the local authorities [to create] a new township area, which was devolved in such a way that each person got a plot.

Sister Georgina—a religious sister who is a very highly qualified nurse—decided she would [come here], because it was going to be a massive community. Nothing was here, no facilities whatsoever, so she opened a little clinic in a shack. And that’s where we picked up [on] HIV for the first time, because very quickly, that whole area expanded.

And I got money from the Belgian government, and we built a prefabricated clinic with 11 professional nurses under Georgina to provide 24-hour service for four years. The shock was immense because she found right from the start that between 49 and 52 percent of pregnant mothers were HIV positive, which meant a horrible death in horrible living conditions for both them and their babies. It was devastating.

That was the beginning of my conversion on HIV & AIDS. I mean a real spiritual conversion in the biggest possible sense. Because it didn’t begin from theory. I walked those streets.

Georgina created the model that started Tapologo in May 1997. So we’ve been 21 years in operation now.

She invited women from the community who knew everything about that community. Above all, we couldn’t come in and solve problems without people like that. She trained them on how to do nursing in the homes. They divided the whole camp into sections, and they went two by two. Like the Gospel, two by two.

It was very dangerous, because myths and discrimination about AIDS [were] beginning in those years, of course. People were identified when the sister … when these nurses went into a home. “Oh, those people have it,” [neighbors would say]. We had to actually shut down for six months because there were attacks, there was violence, and Georgina [received threats]. By men, of course. But then, the people came together [and said,] “This is our project.” They came [to us] and invited us back, and we went.

So that was where it started. We trained community workers. We also gave them basic counseling skills using LifeLine, an NGO counseling service. They were supervised by a professional nurse. And that’s what we then replicated in all the other Tapologo centers. A professional nurse trained caretakers from the community and supervised them. Then, as time went on, we built up the whole operation that we have here.

I walked those shacks with the caretakers. I sat with dying women. I sat one day with a woman in the sun under the appalling heat and the perspiration pouring off me, pouring off her, but also tears pouring out of her. And she said, “Father, I have no hope. There’s no hope for me [and my dying baby].” I experienced that multiple times. The absolute dehumanization of this human being by every aspect of the situation: the poverty, the marginalization, the fact that she’s a woman.

[I asked myself,] “How did she get into this [situation]? She is either a refugee from countries to the north or from areas like Eastern Cape where there [are] no jobs, nothing. There’s that perception: “Get to the mines. You might find a job.” Single women, single mothers arrived there. They’ve got to find somewhere to stay, so where do they go? They go to the tavern where there are men, miners who left their families behind in Lesotho or Mozambique or the Eastern Cape. Single men live in the mine hostels, but they also get a shack because they’ve got money. So men with money; women with nothing. Men with money and no family, no wives. It’s a lethal cocktail.

Conscience: You’ve used the term “survival sex,” in which, in order to live, these women will sell sex, essentially.

Kevin Dowling: Yeah. The more technical term would be transactional sex. But there is a power difference between male and female [in these situations]. She’s in desperation. He’s got all the cards to play. So when I put all that together and saw the suffering [, I had to act].

I let that woman in the shack cry on me. I held her. The ministry of touch is so important. I let her cry on my shoulder and cry and cry. I just kept repeating to her: “Don’t be afraid. We are going to care for you.” I didn’t try to hide the truth. I said: “You might die before your baby dies. If you die, we will take care of your baby. Trust us. Trust in God. Trust.”

This was all before the advent of antiretroviral drugs [ARVs], so it was a ministry of death. Because I was so focused on the dying, I chose to name our center “Tapologo,” inspired by the Queen Mother of the Bafokeng. I met her in 1993 and said, “I’m so pained by this pandemic. I want to create a program which speaks to people about being at peace, healing, dignity, compassion, love.” And she immediately said, “Tapologo.” If you read Matthew 11:25 it says “Come to me all you who labor and are overburdened and I will give you rest.” “Rest” is “Tapologo” in Setswana.

[Tapologo] gave a spiritual ethos to our work. When [patients] came in, they were put in clean, beautiful, simple beds. [The] caretakers would sit with them for hours on end, praying with them, listening to them, talking through their fears and worries. The professional nurses worked night and day with the team of caretakers, ordinary women and men. The quality of those people was a miracle every day. Nineteen children who came in died there. Over 1,500 died there.

By the time ARVs came through PEPFAR, we had 22 sites through the Bishops’ Conference, all articulating and living this vision.

When we were given ARVs, we could save people. We had a magnificent clinician—he had a passionate belief that every single baby born of an HIV positive mother could be born healthy. We achieved a hundred percent success rate with his process. To see the faces of these women when they were told, “Your baby is [negative]”—and we could keep the mother alive to bring up this baby. I mean, those are the miracles.

To see people die there—as I so often did—in peace, is what I believe church ministry is all about. [There was] a little girl whom I loved deeply—Christa—a lovely little girl. [As one of the effects of HIV, she developed] cancer in her throat. She was very ill. We couldn’t save her. I used to go out each day and get her soft ice cream that could go down her throat. She was a divine little gift.

She became a little missionary in her ward. She loved the Bible. She used to listen to what the women and the staff were talking about and find a [related] text and read it to them. That’s what she did every day.

[One] morning, I left to go to confirmations. I sent [for] a sister who was looking after her and I said, “Sister, please care for her today. She’s very low.” When I came home that evening, the sister told me that she had asked little Christa, “Shall I make you some very, very soft porridge with milk, and maybe it can go down your throat?” And Christa said to her, “Sister, no. I think I’m dying. Please call my [grandma].” So she went and phoned, and while she was waiting, she said Christa just took her Bible, put it on her chest, and just peacefully went to God. I couldn’t believe that a child could be so healed inside.

And that’s what I passionately believe about ARVs. If people are going to keep on these drugs every day of their life, unless there’s an inner healing first, and unless they’re accompanied, [we will not succeed.] That’s the failure of the government’s program—they are commendably trying to dish out millions of drugs, but there isn’t the structure to support people. They come to overworked clinics and [a] nurse will say, “Here are your drugs for the next three months,” and they go, and [the patients are] alone.

That’s the difference with our [effort.] We’ve got four days of support programs for our patients taking ARVs. The home caretakers visit them. The doctors can immediately check when the CD4 count has gone up. The home caretaker checks. The nurse checks. So we have a compliance rate of 89 percent, which is incredible.

Prevention and condoms

Kevin Dowling: For those years before we could save people, the issue was and still is—for so many people—death, and a gruesome death. It’s the most dehumanizing way of dying that I can imagine. Awful. Because the patient is very sick, and above all, they are crushed as human beings.

I had to ask myself the question, “What does being prolife mean in this situation?” What option do these women have? None. Because they are dehumanized by the total context in which they find themselves.

So I [ask my fellow] Christians this: If [I am with] a Catholic man in one of those shack settlements in the tavern, and I said to him, “OK, you’ve got multiple partners here?” “Yes.” “You’re HIV positive?” “Yes.” “What are you going to do?” “I’m going to have sex with these women.” “So you know that’s going to give them a disease that would kill them?” “Yes.” So I said, “You’re going to do that?”

What option has she got? That’s the reality. If he’s going to do that, what is our policy? I must tell him, “You must be faithful to a single spouse. You must abstain from sex before marriage.” He’s not going to do that!

So the issue then is, “How can I save this woman’s life?” Is her life not worthy [of being] saved? And in that situation, there’s only one way to save her life, and that is to build up her dignity so sufficiently that she can say to a man, “I will not give you sex unless you use a condom.” That was the position I came to through discernment in the reality.

I went to the United Nations Conference in New York, where we were meeting as bishops to discuss our pastoral approach to HIV & AIDS. I was approached by a journalist, and he said, “You’re from South Africa, which has the highest infection rate in the world. What’s the church’s position on prevention?” And I said, “Well, it’s to abstain from sex before marriage.” “No,” he said. “In this situation, what is your position on condoms?” I said, “Well, we haven’t actually got a position on condom use yet. We’re meeting in August.” So then he said to me, “Well, what’s your position?”

Conscience: You personally?

Kevin Dowling: Me, personally. So I thought to myself, “Well, I could obfuscate here, but he asked me a genuine question.” So I told him. I told him basically what I’ve told you. And he wrote it, and it got into the Sunday papers here, and all hell broke loose. I went into the conference, and it was very, very painful—the bishops came out with a statement which basically reiterated the position [of abstinence].

But then I challenged some bishops. I said, “What are we going to tell a Catholic couple where one of the partners, for whatever reason, becomes HIV positive? What are we going to tell them?” Our position would be to tell them, “You must live as brother and sister for the rest of your life.” I said, “I cannot in any way accept that. So what are we going to say to them? Are we going to produce a bland statement which doesn’t deal with concrete issues like that?”

So they came out with a statement that wasn’t a clear teaching. I was condemned. I remember seeing a blog in the United States saying [about me,] “Well, he can kiss goodbye to his cardinal’s hat!”

Kevin Dowling: So that’s where my position is. I’ve held it all along. I won’t change.

Francis effect

Conscience: Are you optimistic that the Francis view will prevail, or are the more reactionary elements in the church likely to stymy this?

Kevin Dowling: [Pope Francis] has done so many prophetic things. His first visit outside Rome was to Lampedusa, to the refugees. He’s focused on that so strongly. The anomaly for me is that across the world, among politicians, world leaders, other faith leaders and so on, he is the kind of prophet who is accepted. So, where is opposition coming from? From reactionary elements in the church. And I have to believe that these people are sincere in what they believe.

Francis’ ministry, like mine, began in the slums in Argentina. That formed his whole vision of church, of faith, of spirituality, of pastoral ministry, of what we should be as a church. That became in his heart and spirit the defining thing for whatever he would discern about any issue.

Now, I remember I had an American bishop who came here—who was a highly qualified model theologian—and he met me and he said, “I disagree with your position on condoms completely.” And I said, “OK. I understand that. I can understand where you’re coming from. But let me take you to…” And I took him to Freedom Park, and I told him the story. And I said, “What does a person like me do and decide in a situation like this?” And he said to me, “Yeah, I can see you have a point.”

But, you see, his starting point was different from mine. He was coming from the principles and moral theology, and I was coming from the grassroots reality of suffering and dying people.

Now, I believe that unless church leaders have had that real experience of seeing the traumatic situations of the vast majority of human beings for years, it won’t shape who they are and it won’t shape the way they think about what we should be as a church.

I think perhaps those who are pulling back are people who have been through an academic formation and have degrees at Roman universities. They’ve been in diplomatic service and so on. They haven’t had that profound experience of life as it really is for the majority of humankind that Pope Francis has had and someone like me has had.

Humanae Vitae

Conscience: I read somewhere in an interview where you said you suspected that one of the reasons that some in the church will not go back on the teaching on condoms is they can’t accept the idea that they were once wrong. That the dogma has existed for so long and [been] defended so stoutly that to now sort of say, “Oh, well, we were wrong,” is a difficult step.

Kevin Dowling: I think every one of us can point [to a time when we were wrong]. Particularly when I was a young priest and carrying with me the ways I was taught and following canon law, and applying that, and then realizing I [had] made a mistake. I’ve had to admit that.

As a bishop, I’ve also made mistakes. On my 25th anniversary as bishop, I publicly asked my people, the priests and everyone to forgive me for the mistakes I’ve made. I have made mistakes because of a whole lot of factors. You’re tired. There’s the stress of so many problems and so on. You make a decision too hastily. You don’t discern enough.

That’s one thing I’ve learned. When a problem gets brought to you, don’t try and solve it immediately. Take time. Get both sides of the [story]. Listen to them. Discern what’s true. It’s so easy to simply take one side of the story, say, “[T]hat comes from a priest.” And you would presume that’s factual. That would seem the best. But you need to hear the other side of the story. So one can make mistakes, and I think in terms of the condom issue, even Pope Benedict kept a little opening there.

So that isn’t to say that he was saying, “I made a mistake” or “The church made a mistake,” but it’s the development of theology. We’re a church in development, and our theology is always in development in new situations with new challenges. And to me, that’s enormously exciting.


If only we have faith. Can’t we just believe in ourselves that the Spirit has been promised to us? So why doubt that even if we struggle with problems, and even if we come to positions where we say, “At the moment, this seems the best,” but we don’t say it is the best—let’s be open to development. We can change. We can modify this as we go on in life. But at the moment, let’s go with this and see—does it build the church? Does it make us more faithful to Jesus, to the Gospel, to the social outreach of the church? What are the effects? Are people touched by God through what we’ve decided and what we’re doing? That’s the kind of church I would love us to be.

So this is the struggle that we’re in as a church. There are essential doctrinal statements, pronouncements, beliefs which define us as the church; you change those in any way, and you’re actually changing what we as a Catholic church are supposed to be. And then there are the others saying, “Yes. Yes, those have always been the doctrines; however, to think that we apply this in the same way to every single pastoral situation—no.” We have to be discerning people, flexible, to find out how can we apply the doctrines of the church in a way which enables people in very difficult situations to keep believing, to keep growing, to keep developing as faithful Christians and followers of Jesus, and to keep giving of who they are and their gifts, without feeling crushed that “I can’t live up to this doctrine.”

And that’s the challenge. How do we do that? How do we take people who are in immensely difficult situations in marriage and so on—how can we keep them feeling—not just believing, but feeling, “I still belong to this church community, fully. This church community to which I belong cares and loves me for who I am, for where I am in this moment, and it’s not going to shut a door on me, and that’s the end of it. It’s going to open a door for me, in some way, to keep struggling with this problem, but with the support and care of the church community, so that I can keep growing and I can keep belonging. I can keep giving what I can and what I can be and share with the church community and its mission.” That’s the challenge for me. And it’s not easy to solve, at all.

Conscience: It’s not. For individuals, we struggle with how to live in good conscience, and still remain part of the church, and still find a place within the church.

Kevin Dowling: I think the problem with contraception—and I can even think of my own nephews and nieces—this is a nonissue for them, and it has been a nonissue for years. Now, the response from those who would hold to being firm on Humanae Vitae is, “Yeah, but that’s because they’ve been influenced by a secularized world, which has diminished values. All of those influences have enabled them or made them come to decisions, which have not been sufficiently discerned in faith.”

Perhaps, I would say. But on the other hand, when people say, “This doesn’t make sense to me in my situation,” just like that young mother crying in the confessional to me, I think it’s too easy just to say that it’s secularization that has brought us to this. I think there are many, many sincere Catholics and very good spiritual Catholic people, Christians, who have come to this position [in favor of contraception] sincerely.

Future church

Conscience: Are you optimistic about the future church being a more compassionate, more open church? A church that relies less on historical, dogmatic, theologically absolute positions?

Kevin Dowling: I’m optimistic because it’s already happening. It’s happening in all sorts of ways—the amazing fruits and gifts of the Spirit taking flesh.

What I would regret is that the institutional center should in some way stifle the work of the Spirit who will work in the Spirit’s way, which is not ours to determine. And that’s where I find so much that’s exciting in the church. That makes me feel, “This is what it’s all about.” What’s actually happening? The Spirit is at work in groups, in individuals, who are responding in a multitude of ways.

As co-president of Pax Christi with Marie Dennis, we want to model a different form of leadership, where a bishop and a lay woman could co-lead a peace movement. And we gave a peace prize to the Jesuit Refugee Service in Syria. I’ll never forget the deep, deep pain in the eyes of those two Jesuits who said to us, “We open our doors to everyone, even though we know they might come in to kill us. And we will continue to open our doors to everyone, because that is what God wants from us.”

They have worked with interfaith groups—Muslims, Christians, Orthodox—creating all kinds of pastoral and social programs on the ground, with ordinary people who are extraordinary, to respond to that enormous suffering. To give the peace prize to them was such an honor.

That’s what’s happening all over the church, and we don’t hear the good stories enough. We don’t hear these beautiful stories enough. For example, in South Sudan, which has tragically gone so, so wrong—a group of international congregations of sisters created a teacher training course to respond to the critical need for schooling, in the midst of danger, civil war, and they’ve stayed faithful.

There are so many stories like that. That’s happening on the ground, and it’s happening because good, gifted people feel called, and they go, in faith. And that I think is what the church is all about, and it doesn’t have to wait [to come] from on high. We can do it. Any one of us can do it.

Social issues

Conscience: We’ve seen debates recently on the legalization of abortion and gay marriage. The public has had very serious debates. All voices were heard. People have tried within those communities to come up with what they feel is the best answer, and they have voted in significant majorities for what they think is a liberal position—and it feels to them like they’re voting for compassion, tolerance, acceptance and rejecting dogma. And I think of people like Mary McAleese, the former Irish president, who is a very sincere, devout Catholic and has been very sincere in her public statements about wanting a better church.

Kevin Dowling: I think the process that Pope Francis continually articulates for all this is the theology of respectful encounter and dialogue. And I think that’s the only way forward in all these situations. That we come into a moment, a process of encounter, with the unique human being that you are. We come into this with reverence and respect for you, as you are, what you believe, and have a respectful encounter, and then we go into a non-prejudicial dialogue. So, openness to different positions, different viewpoints, and so on, and searching for where can there be a meeting of minds. Where can there be a meeting of hearts, of values? What implications would that coming together mean for both of us, or both our positions? Even if we go away simply with a viewpoint that we understand each other better, that’s a positive for me, because you can build on that. We don’t go away having alienated each other.

Conscience: And for something like Humanae Vitae, we as a church, we as a community, can debate it in the way you’ve just said, and analyze it and look at it, respectful of each other’s opinions, but hoping to move it forward, perhaps?

Kevin Dowling: Yes. Move it forward. Because only then can we come to a better global position as a church. That’s not going to be easy to achieve, but somewhere along the line, maybe there will be a different formulation just simply because the debate will go on and on and on. And it’s not going to die. And I think that’s good. Because that’s the kind of church we should be—one of respectful encounters and dialogue. And, hopefully, arriving more and more at a consensus about issues.

I think there’s perhaps an instinct to entrench one’s position, because one believes so passionately in it.

That’s why respectful dialogue—where one is open to a deeper understanding of an alternative position—is so critical. Because if you’re not open to that, then dialogue is just going to reinforce my position. That I’m not seeing that this can be understood in a different way, and it means that I’ve got to look at my position in a different way. That’s the kind of openness and conversion we need to come to. That’s not easy.


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