"I think the moral authority of the Church's leadership today has never been weaker," he said in an address to Catholic laity in Cape Town last month. "It is important in my view that church leadership, instead of giving an impression of its power, privilege and prestige, should rather be experienced as a humble, searching ministry together with its people."
Bishop Dowling argued that Catholic Social Teaching provided the way forward for the Church. "Here we have very relevant principles and guidelines to engage with complex social, economic, cultural and political realities, especially as these affect the poorest and most vulnerable members of societies everywhere," he said. "These principles should enable us, as Church, to critique constructively all socio-political-economic systems and policies : especially [as they affect] the poorest and most vulnerable in society."
However, the bishop insisted that if the Church is ready to criticise governments and other bodies on the basis of democratic principles, then it must be prepared to introduce such principles into its own governance.
"When thinking people of all persuasions look at church leadership, they raise questions about, for example, real participation of the membership in its governance and how in fact church leadership is to be held accountable, and to whom," Bishop Dowling said. "If the Church and its leadership profess to follow the values of the Gospel and the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, then its internal life, its methods of governing and its use of authority will be scrutinised on the basis of what we profess."
Bishop Dowling gave the example of the principle of subsidiarity : according to which decision-making is devolved to the lowest appropriate level : as one that was highly relevant to current needs. "However, I think that we have a leadership in the Church which undermines the very notion of subsidiarity; where the minutiae of church life and praxis 'at the lower level' are subject to examination and authentication being given by the 'higher level', in fact the highest level," he said.
He then went on to criticise what he called the "mystique" surrounding the figure of the Pope. "There is more than a perception, because of this mystique, that unquestioning obedience by the faithful to the Pope is required and is a sign of the ethos and fidelity of a true Catholic," he said. For these reasons, he argued, it has become more and more difficult for the College of Bishops as a whole, or in a particular territory, to exercise their "theologically based servant leadership".
The church leadership should recognise and empower decision-making at the appropriate levels in the local Church, he concluded, so that the whole Church could be enriched through "a diversity which truly integrates socio-cultural values and insights into a living and developing faith".
This is not the first time that Bishop Dowling has chosen to confront the church hierarchy. On the vexed issue of using condoms to prevent the spread of Aids in Africa, Bishop Dowling has said that when people choose not to follow church teachings forbidding sex outside marriage "they should use a condom in order to prevent the transmission of potential death to another". On his way to Africa last year, on the papal plane, Pope Benedict XVI told reporters: "You can't resolve [the HIV/Aids crisis] with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem", by promoting promiscuity.
Neither the Vatican nor the South African bishops had responded to Bishop Dowling's remarks when The Tablet went to press.