Senior Cardinal breaks ranks with the Vatican over condoms

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A senior Italian Cardinal has broken ranks with the traditional Roman Catholic stance on contraception by suggesting that condoms should be used by married couples to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids.

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, a former archbishop of Milan, said condoms, when used by married couples, were a "lesser evil" than passing on the disease.

"A spouse infected with Aids is obliged to protect the other partner who also has to be able to protect herself," said the respected Jesuit prelate, who remains the most influential figure among Catholic liberals in spite of having retired from his tenure at the head of Italy's largest archdiocese.

Cardinal Martini's comments, published yesterday by L'Espresso magazine during a debate with a leading Catholic surgeon, Ignazio Marino, were in stark contrast to the staunchly conservative teachings of the Catholic Church. The official Vatican line on condoms is that they remain forbidden to Catholics under any circumstances, even as worldwide levels of Aids continue to soar.

The Church rules it is unacceptable to use them even to prevent the transmission of the virus from one married person to his or her partner. Sexual abstinence, it claims, is the best way to fight the disease, which has claimed more than three million lives in the past year.

Cardinal Martini acknowledged that the Church faced a dilemma over the issue. "The question is whether religious authorities should advertise such a means of protection, as they feel that other morally sustainable methods, including abstinence, are consequently being pushed into the background," he said.

Cardinal Martini also pledged his support for legal abortions and the use of frozen embryos to enable single women to produce children. "It is difficult for a modern state not to intervene, at least to prevent a brutal, arbitrary situation from developing," he said, of abortion ­ which occurred in Italy in 1978 ­ had been a "positive" development in that it had "contributed to reducing and eliminating illegal abortions.

"That doesn't mean a 'licence to kill'," he insisted, saying he hoped governments would use "all means at their disposal" to reduce the number of abortions.

The 79-year-old cardinal ­ who has been described as a "free spirit " within a strict hierarchy ­ also voiced the opinion that, in the event of a conflict of values over the use of frozen embryos, "it seems to me more ethically meaningful to move toward the solution that allows a life to continue rather than allow it to die." Acknowledging that he understood that his views were not shared by many in the Vatican, he added: "The insertion of such embryos in the womb of a woman, even if she is single, seems preferable to pure and simple destruction."

Cardinal Martini also spoke out in favour of adoptions by unmarried and single people when there is not a "wise and mature" couple available for orphans. "Other people, even if they are single" who could provide "essential guarantees" of respectability could be foster parents. "I would leave it up to the authorities to see what is the best solution, here and now, for this or that child, he said." Cardinal Martini reiterated his opposition to euthanasia in line with Church teaching but said he would not condemn people who are involved out of " altruism" at the request of people who wish to end their lives. But he did restate his total condemnation of any "use of embryo stem cells for research" and of any notion of paid "compensation" to organ donors. The Vatican declined to comment.