The Toronto Star (Canada), March 18, 2009
Pope Benedict XVI attacked the use of condoms, sparking new controversy after a recent furor over a Holocaust-denying bishop.
Aboard an aircraft headed to Cameroon for his first papal visit to AIDS-devastated Africa, Benedict said the virus was a tragedy "that cannot be overcome by the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, they increase the problem."
Anti-AIDS campaigners were quick to respond.
"The Pope is living on the moon," said Stephen Lewis, who heads a foundation supporting groups that alleviate the deadly effects of HIV/AIDS.
And he added: "Every stitch of scientific evidence says condoms are the best preventive measure we have against the virus."
The Pope's remark was "another example of complete indifference to the vulnerability of women, who are so hugely and disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS," Lewis said in an interview from Hamilton yesterday.
Pope Benedict, and conservative Catholics who support him -along with fundamentalist Christians - advocate abstinence, contending sex is only permissible between married adults, and that condoms are unacceptable because they prevent procreation.
"The only solution is twofold," Benedict said yesterday.
"The first is a humanization of sexuality, spiritual renewal which brings with it a new way of behaving ... secondly, a true friendship, especially for those who are suffering, a willingness to make personal sacrifices."
The Pope has not spoken out recently on condoms. But in 2005, he told Catholic bishops visiting the Vatican from Africa, "the traditional teaching of the church has proven to be the only fail-safe way to provide the spread of HIV/AIDS."
Yesterday's statement inflamed not only anti-AIDS activists, but some liberal Catholics.
"No responsible health-care provider would suggest that condoms are a panacea," said Jon O'Brien, president of the Washington-based Catholics for Choice.
"But they are an absolutely vital measure that people must have if they are to protect themselves and their partners and stem the spread of the virus."
Opinion polls show millions of Catholics around the world now support the use of condoms, O'Brien said, adding the Pope's statement was "a real tragedy because it's not just an issue for Catholics."
Brazil, with the world's largest Catholic population, promotes and distributes condoms to battle a spreading AIDS epidemic.
But under conservative administrations, the United States - a major funder of foreign aid - has discouraged overseas projects that promote contraceptive devices.
Former president George W. Bush's publicly funded emergency AIDS prevention program supplied money to groups teaching "abstinence and being faithful," but played down the distribution of condoms, which the World Health Organization says can prevent sexually transmitted disease in "98 to 99 per cent of cases when consistently and correctly used."
President Barack Obama shows signs of reversing the trend. After his inauguration in January, he quashed a "gag law" that refused aid money to groups that even mentioned abortion to their clients.
Religious lobbying has played a substantial role in opposing condom distribution.
But not only Christian believers have tried to discourage them. Although the rampant HIV/AIDS epidemic has broken down barriers to their distribution in some Muslim countries, they are derided by some who believe they promote promiscuity.
In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai's government has supported the use of contraceptives to reduce the soaring maternal mortality rate.
But a Taliban leader told a meeting of insurgents this week that contraceptive drugs were "illicit and non-Islamic," triggering fears that health centres may be attacked, according to the UN news agency.
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