Catherine Pepinster: Church's stance has made people question its compassion

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The Independent Online

Whose voices should Roman Catholics listen to when it comes to whether condoms should be used to combat Aids? The Pope? The cardinal who claims condoms are ineffective because they are full of microscopic holes? The elderly theologians in the back-rooms of the Vatican? As the church seems to be edging towards making a statement some might once have thought impossible - that it will be permissible to use condoms to prevent the spread of the HIV virus - the voices that I most like to remember are those of people working in Africa with the sick and the dying.

There's Sister Georgina in South Africa, a highly trained nurse-nun of 20 years' experience, who cares for women, thrown out by their families for being HIV-positive, who then have to sell their bodies to survive. Then there's Sister Mathilde, an Italian Franciscan based in Kenya who has set up a residential home and school for Aids orphans, caring for 160 of them, without proper testing equipment or retroviral drugs. In Kenya alone, there are 900,000 Aids orphans; in Africa, more than 25 million infected with HIV. There are countless other Roman Catholic missionaries like these two nuns across Africa, working in the front line because of their religious faith. They are not the kind of people who seek attention, criticising their own Church's teaching on condoms, but they do talk of the suffering of their people. And word reaches the West, from the leaders of these missionaries' orders, and from some of the bishops of Africa, that condoms should be used as part of HIV prevention.

This is a life or death issue, but for the church, too, it is extraordinarily serious. Its perceived official resistance to using condoms, based on its opposition to artificial birth control, has come under fire from the secular and ecclesiastical worlds. It is causing people to doubt the church's compassion - which is surely the watchword for those who act in Christ's name.

Several cardinals in the past few years have spoken out, most recently Cardinal Carlo Martini, all calling for not so much a revolution in church teaching, but for a reappraisal. For while the Catholic Church continues to emphasise that being open to the transmission of life is the ideal in sex, in situations where one partner has HIV/Aids, advocates of condom use say it would be a lesser evil to prevent the transmission of death. After all, as Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium has said, we must also remember the commandment "Thou shalt not kill".

But it's the most senior men in the Vatican who have the clout to really make an impact on the fight against Aids. Pope Benedict XVI, the former cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is a formidable theologian, and since he was elected he appears to be a listening pope. Far from weakening its authority, the church would gain great credit from such a move on the use of condoms. It would be truly pro-Africa, and pro-life.

Catherine Pepinster is editor of 'The Tablet', the international Catholic weekly