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See no evil, hear no evil…

The Catholic Church is an influential player in Africa's fight against HIV and AIDS but it refuses to back the use of condoms. Is turning a blind eye its way to fight the disease?

In a small village in Mozambique a lonely and scared priest is telling his community they must be abstinent and faithful but, if they're not, then they should protect themselves from HIV by using condoms.

"I'm seeing people dying every day and I feel as a community leader as well as a religious leader I need to do something. If they are not able to achieve abstinence then I tell them to protect themselves," he told me. But he was too scared to give his name for fear of being thrown out of the church.

In my home country the Catholic Church holds powerful sway with around forty per cent of people there following its teachings. Every day 500 are infected or are born with the virus in their blood because their mothers are HIV-positive, and only about eight per cent receive free antiretroviral (ARV) treatment from the government. HIV is making poor people even poorer.

Here in the United Kingdom the Roman Catholic Church has been rallying its troops to fight poverty. In the UK where the G8 summit is being held, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, and Cardinal Keith O'Brien, his counterpart in Scotland, have been diligent foot-soldiers for the cause of greater aid, debt relief and trade justice.

I spoke to Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor about the mission. "I want to add my voice and tell the leaders [who are] meeting at the G8 summit to keep the promises they made." he told me, before criticising the G8 for failing to make more progress towards reaching the Millennium Development Goals and ending world hunger. "If they fail, people will know that they failed" he added.

When I asked the Cardinal about another of the Millennium Development Goals, the thorny subject of fighting HIV and AIDS, he told me: "The Catholic Church helps the African people like the Mozambicans first by helping those in need, and then by teaching the moral values of abstinence and fidelity."

The official Catholic Church position is that HIV and AIDS should be tackled by promoting behaviour change; in short, abstaining from intercourse before marriage, and staying faithful to one sexual partner after. It does not endorse condoms as a way of people protecting themselves. The stance has been bitterly criticised from many quarters, with some commentators even blaming the late Pope John Paul II for fuelling the spread of HIV, especially among women.

Euan Wilmshurst, of the campaigning organisation Action for Southern Africa told me: "No poverty campaign can work without empowering women. Every group that has a community's respect and trust should work towards empowering women by giving them the right to choose to protect themselves. African woman still aren't given that right in most cases."

When I asked Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor's office about that scared Catholic priest in Mozambique, the Cardinal's spokesman said he needn't have been so afraid. He said the Roman Catholic Church acknowledges "there are specific situations in which the use of condoms is licit".

As he put it, "these situations are the result of a broad problem caused by poverty, hunger and despair, and have to be looked at in a particular way." I didn't feel much clearer. So I read a statement issued last December by the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales which read:

– The Bishops oppose artificial contraception and do not advocate the promotion of condoms as a means of combating Aids. The way to combat Aids is through the Catholic sexual ethic of monogamy, fidelity and abstinence.

– The magisterium of the church always maintains the objectivity of the moral law, whilst also recognising the particular circumstances in which individuals endeavour to live her teaching.

It seemed to me the key word here was ‘promote'. So does this mean that promoting condoms is forbidden, but turning a blind eye to people using condoms in a life-and-death situation isn't necessarily condemned? Should the village priest in Mozambique start openly educating his flock about condom use? I couldn't get an entirely clear answer.

Luke Coppen, editor of the Catholic Herald magazine, suggested I read an article that had been published in The Tablet, another Roman Catholic newspaper. In 'The truth about condoms' Martin Rhonheimer wrote: "What do I, as a Catholic priest, tell Aids-infected promiscuous people or homosexuals who are using condoms?

"I will try to help them to live an upright and well-ordered sexual life. But I will not tell them not to use condoms. I simply will not talk to them about this and assume that if they choose to have sex they will at least keep a sense of responsibility."

For Euan Wilmshurst, from Action for Southern Africa, the position is just too confusing. "The ambiguity within the Catholic Church position isn't helpful and leaves an open space for the small community leaders to make their own interpretation of what the Vatican says. It's about being responsible and taking leadership seriously", he told me.

There's already a lot of confusion among uneducated people in my country and the church's theological subtleties could be lost on some of the very people the abstinence and fidelity message is aimed at. One example is of a man who read a safe sex poster in Portuguese that translates: "Make love inside your home", an indirect way of telling people to be faithful.

But that message clearly didn't get through; he took the instruction literally and brought his lovers home while his wife stood outside. Those events had nothing to do with the Catholic Church's stance on contraception but it does illustrate the fact that when it comes to preventing HIV in poor countries there's little room for guesswork.

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