Blessed are the condoms: Why even the Pope may have to learn to love them

Condoms, Johnnies, French letters, Durex, love gloves, rubbers. Call them what you will, Beatrice Were wishes her husband Francis had worn one. Four months after he died in 1991 she discovered he had been HIV positive and passed the infection on to her. "I was very bitter, and the bitterness took years to go away," she says. "I realised that he knew and did not tell me. I felt betrayed."

Beatrice was 22 years old when she found out. Now 38, she hears that the Pope may relax the Roman Catholic church's total ban on condoms, and has something to say to him. "Most women in my country abstain from sex until marriage, only to be infected by their husband. Even when you may be faithful, you cannot account for your husband's behaviour."

Ms Were is an outspoken advocate of contraception in Africa, a continent where more than 25 million people live with HIV infection. A million of those are in her home country of Uganda, whose population is 41 per cent Roman Catholic.

Condoms have always been banned by the Vatican on the grounds that they deny the full reality and implications of sexual intercourse and prevent life that might naturally be conceived. Now the Pope has commissioned a scientific and theological report from Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan of Mexico. He is understood to be recommending that the use of condoms be allowed where one person in a marriage is HIV positive. Although a small shift in the eyes of most non-Catholics, it would be a huge change in Vatican teaching. Only last year, Pope Benedict XVI said the spread of HIV and Aids should be fought with abstinence and fidelity alone. Contraception was encouraging a "breakdown in sexual morality".

But cardinals face pressure from priests and missionaries dealing with the tragic daily implications of the spread of the disease. Figures released by the United Nations ahead of World Aids Day on Friday show that 39.5 million people around the world are living with HIV infection, of which 4.3 million were diagnosed in the last year. "In India and Africa the biggest risk for women acquiring HIV is being married," says Dr Rachel Baggaley of Christian Aid. "Fidelity does not work if one person is positive, as is often the case."

The Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, has said, "If the church is really interested in having its followers live, it should back the use of condoms."

The report by Cardinal Barragan has now gone to the traditionally conservative Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and to the Pope himself, who led the Congregation under his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Together they published in 1987 a document called Donum Vitae which stressed that the church would never be able to condone the use of condoms by gay or unmarried couples. It did not mention marriage. The Pope may choose February, the twentieth anniversary of Donum Vitae, to state a new view.

Cardinal Barragan hinted at a rethink this week but said "no response from the church can be one that encourages a libertine sexual attitude".

There have been few more libertine than Casanova, who called his sheath an "English raincoat". Yet English aristocrats of the same period called them French letters. One theory for this - and for the origin of the word - is that English men passing through Condom in southwestern France discovered how local sheep farmers used the intestines from their animals as protection. They then sent them home for covert use by their friends. How they found out in the first place is mystery - as is the apparent inability of British farmers to think of it.

They may have done, however. Fish and animal intestines dating from the Civil War were found in the latrines at Dudley Castle near Birmingham. Another theory for the name is that Charles II was given an oiled sheep's gut by a Dr Condom. However historians have been unable to confirm that the doctor existed at all.

The Romans used goat intestines, the ancient Chinese oiled vine leaves and the Japanese thin tortoiseshell. The reactions of Roman and Oriental women are largely unrecorded. However, condoms did not become a global and theological issue until the 1920s, when latex made them thin, durable and cheap to mass produce. They declined during the Sixties in competition with the contraceptive pill - you didn't have to trust a man to bring and wear that. Then came Acquired Immmune Deficiency Syndrome. Aids became a household acronym in this country in 1986 with the first public health campaign. It was terrifying, and provoked some hysteria - but also produced the memorable, unintentionally hilarious sight of red-faced television presenters demonstrating how to use condoms by peeling them over bananas.

The world now uses between six and nine billion condoms every year, with three billion produced in Thailand. Moulds are dipped into a series of vats of latex, the sap of the rubber tree, and dried using hot air. They are powdered, tested for strength and punctures, possibly lubricated then sealed in foil.

Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, has said there are tiny holes in each condom that the virus can pass through. The World Health Organisation calls this view mistaken and dangerous, but it continues to have influence in some countries.

A change in the official line now will have negligible effect in Britain where many Catholics already feel able to practise birth control without the approval of their Pope. But campaigners hope it will make it far easier to distribute condoms in the developing world. The United Nations estimates that at least seven billion extra condoms would be needed to make a significant reduction in HIV infection. "From a human rights perspective," says Beatrice Were in Uganda, "all people who need to use condoms should have access to condoms."

Additional reporting by Dave Burke

Safe Sex: Something for antiquity, sir? A brief history of prophylactics

1,000BC First recorded use: Egyptians wear linen sheath to protect against disease. Chinese use oiled silk paper; Japanese favour leather or thin horn.

AD200 Cave paintings in Combarelles, France, provide first visual evidence in Europe of condoms.

1500s Italian doctor Gabrielle Fallopius proposes linen sheath as protection against syphilis epidemic.

1640s Farmers in Condom, France, use sheep guts.

1660s Name popularised when Charles II given oiled sheep intestine by a Dr Condom. Allegedly. May rather come from condus, Latin for vessel.

1855 Vulcanised rubber produces a robust sheath. Men disastrously advised to wash and keep using until it crumbles.

1912 Latex rubber makes thin, single-use condom possible. By Second World War these are mass produced and handed out to troops.

1950s Refinement (and greater pleasure) as condoms go skin-tight and get bubble tip to collect semen. Durex introduces lubrication.

1980s With arrival of Aids/HIV, condoms are no longer a source of embarrassment. They are demonstrated on television - using bananas.

2006 Sales of condoms worldwide reach nine billion a year.

Vatican view: The beliefs of Benedict XVI

Donum Vitae was published in 1987 and signed by Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, who would become his successor. It reiterated the church's total ban on contraception.

Pope Benedict XVI told African bishops Aids could be tackled by only abstinence and fidelity, not condoms.

The Pope's theologian Cardinal Georges Cottier signalled a shift last year, saying: "The virus is transmitted during a sexual act, so at the same time as [bringing] life there is also a risk of transmitting death. That is where the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' is valid."