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Last Updated: Monday, 11 April, 2005, 07:08 GMT 08:08 UK
Seeking a new Catholic lead on condoms
By Justin Pearce
BBC News website, Johannesburg

Campaigners against Aids in South Africa are hoping that the election of a new Pope could lead to a liberalisation of the Vatican's stance on the use of condoms to prevent HIV transmission.

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During his lifetime, Pope John Paul II drew criticism for refusing to moderate the Catholic Church's anti-condom stance in the face of the Aids epidemic.

But some Catholics say that the Church does not ban condoms outright, and is concerned with sexual morality as well as preventing HIV transmission.

An estimated 5.3 million out of South Africa's 45 million people are living with HIV - only India has more people infected with the virus.

South Africa's largest non-governmental Aids prevention programme is run by the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference (SACBC).

"One cannot talk about human rights without promoting reproductive rights - it's a package," Said Luyanda Ngonyama, a Catholic who previously worked for the SACBC HIV-Aids programme, and who now co-ordinates the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) in Gauteng province.

"The Pope's teaching was limited. One understands the constraints on him, but he was the one person who had the opportunity to make a change. He lacked the will to make that change."


Mr Ngonyama argues that the church's approach makes it difficult to take an "integrated approach" to preventing the spread of HIV.

"If one is talking about an integrated approach, one must talk about condoms: One can say that those who want to abstain can do so, but that those who wish to use condoms because of their lifestyle must be allowed to do so."

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But one SACBC Aids programme staff member - who preferred to remain anonymous - said Catholic teaching on condom use was often misunderstood.

The church does, for example, condone the use of condoms between a married couple where one partner is HIV-positive.

"The teaching is not against the use of condoms, but against the casualisation of sex," the SACBC worker said.

Although the arrival of a new pope was unlikely to bring about a major change, "there may be some slight shift in the recognition that some people are not able to live in monogamous relationships - some bishops already recognise that.

"The late Pope has been criticised for not coming out more clearly on the recognition that conscience plays a role [in deciding whether to use condoms] - the church's teaching is that informed conscience must be the basis for a decision."

Although the SACBC HIV programme does not distribute condoms, it does provide education and counselling on HIV prevention.

"A responsible way of doing counselling is to give people all the facts they need to know how to protect themselves," the SACBC staff member said.

TAC's national spokesman Nathan Geffen said he hoped that whoever is elected to succeed John Paul "would be more liberal on social issues, and would consider changing the Catholic Church's position on reproductive choice and on the use of condoms".

See the scene from St Peter's Basilica


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