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Spanish bishops defy Pope by advocating condoms in Aids fight

Spain's Catholic bishops have defied Vatican dogma on contraception by accepting for the first time the use of condoms to prevent the spread of Aids.

"Condoms have their place in the co-ordinated and global prevention of Aids ... It's the appropriate way to tackle such a serious problem," the spokes-man for Spain's Episcopal Conference, Juan Antonio Martinez Camino, said in an unprecedented volte-face. He had just met the Health Minister, Elena Salgado, to discuss co-operation in the fight against Aids.

This is the first time a spokesman for the Spanish Catholic hierarchy has declared himself so strongly in favour of condoms. Last November, Padre Camino condemned a government anti-Aids campaign that recommended the use of condoms with the slogan, "For you, for everyone, use it", saying it was "seriously false" to assert that condoms prevented the spread of Aids.

He was upholding the longstanding Vatican line that condoms were not effective. Last June, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council of the Family, told churchmen in Madrid that using contraceptives was "a form of Russian roulette" in fighting Aids. The Vatican made no immediate response to the bishops' statement, but from Vatican City the Pontifical Council's health spokesman, Bishop Jose Luis Redrado Marchite, who is Spanish, said condom use was "a measure Catholic morality condemns".

Padre Camino insisted that traditional methods of abstinence and fidelity remained of fundamental importance, but Ms Salgado countered that fidelity was not necessarily a sufficient protection against Aids, and abstinence was unrealistic for most people. She added that her ministry sought to protect the health of everyone, "whatever their creed".

The bishops' dramatic turnaround was provoked by a document in The Lancet last November signed by 150 experts from 36 countries that urged people to protect themselves from Aids with a three-way strategy of abstinence, fidelity and condoms.

The cordiality between the cleric and the minister is an exception to the tension between the Church and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's socialist government. Bishops have strongly opposed government plans to make divorce easier, permit gay marriage, cut church tax breaks and reduce religious influence in classrooms.

Last November, attempts from the pulpit to mobilise anti-government street demonstrations were stopped only on the word of senior archbishops, indicating deep divisions within the church. This is the first indication of common ground. The veteran progressive theologian Enrique Miret Miranda said Spain's Catholic Church "had no option but to bow to reality". The gospels said nothing about contraception, Fr Miret Miranda said. He added that it was always preferable to make love with a condom than infect someone with Aids.

A total of 125,000 Spaniards are HIV-positive, according to official statistics. A senior professor of viral pathology, Rafael Najera, congratulated the Church on its "historic initiative, albeit overdue". Spain's federation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals welcomed the new thinking as "absolutely inevitable" and hoped the Catholic Church elsewhere would follow suit. The Labour and Social Affairs Minister, Jesus Caldera, said he was pleased the Church had "rectified ... a position that was antiquated and indifferent to citizens' rights."