French Catholics sanctify condoms

Click to follow
The Independent Online
In a decision that could have far-reaching implications for the Catholic Church, French bishops have officially accepted that condoms may be necessary to prevent the spread of Aids, in effect rejecting the position of the Vatican.

The concession, in a church report published yesterday, was hailed by doctors and anti-Aids campaigners as a welcome end to church equivocation on Aids. The report's wording is extremely careful. "The use of a condom," it says, "is comprehensible in cases where an individual with an established pattern of sexual activity needs to avoid a serious risk." The report stresses this is the only acceptable reason for using a condom and that the practice is not condoned in any other circumstances.

The report, Aids: society in question, was compiled by the episcopate's social commission and has the status of an official church document. It contains testimony from Catholic specialists in Aids research, prevention and treatment and sociologists and theologians. It emphasises that use of a condom is still an "insufficient" response to the threat of Aids. "To think ... a condom eliminates all the risks emphasises the consequences rather than the causes and circumstances of the spread of Aids."

Despite all the hedging, France's leading Aids specialist, Professor Luc Montagnier, of the Pasteur Institute in Paris and a critic of the Vatican's position on Aids, had no hesitation describing the bishops' conclusion as "an important development". He noted, however, that they had not directly supported the use of condoms in their own name, but simply passed on (though without criticism) the advice of medical specialists.

As Professor Montagnier also noted, the decision was not "a 180-degree turn". Individual French churchmen, including the late archbishop of Lyons, have argued in public against opposing the use of condoms. Others have tacitly condoned the practice as the "lesser of two evils" - the greater evil being to cause someone's death.

Others, including the radical former bishop of Evreux, Jacques Gaillot, have aligned themselves with campaigners who accuse the Church of condemning people to death by regarding Aids as a form of divine retribution. So far, there have been 40,000 cases of Aids in France; 61 per cent of victims have died.

The shift by the French Catholic Bishops' was welcomed yesterday by a leading Catholic lesbian theologian in Britain. Dr Liz Stuart, editor of a book of gay and lesbians prayers, said: "I think it's a great step forward that any group of bishops is prepared to defy the atmosphere of the Vatican in order to protect human life. That is extraordinary to me and very welcome."

The Catholic church in this country has been careful not to oppose too hard the Government's promotion of condoms to prevent the spread of Aids. Nicholas Coote, the assistant general secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Conference, recalled last night that Cardinal Hume had said he understood the Government's reasoning in the matter, even though he deplored its conclusions.

In recent years, even the Pope has moderated his condemnations of artificial contraception. Nuns in war zones where they are in danger of rape may take the pill. And at the recent UN conferences on women and population, in Cairo and Beijing, the Vatican delegation was prepared to compromise on contraception in order to make gains in the struggle against legal abortion.