Don't Tell the Pope

Pope John Paul II would be scandalized if he came to the Roman Catholic hospital here in the poor southwestern part of El Salvador.

The Vatican is increasingly out of touch and exerts a reactionary — even, in this world of AIDS, deadly — influence on health policy in the developing world. Here in El Salvador, church leaders in 1998 helped ban abortions even when necessary to save the life of a woman, and, much worse, helped pass a law, which took effect last month, requiring condoms to carry warnings that they do not protect against AIDS.

In El Salvador, where only 4 percent of women use contraceptives the first time they have sex, this law will mean more kids dying of AIDS. The reality is that condoms no more cause sex than umbrellas cause rain.

Here at the grass roots, the Catholic Church is a vibrant, flexible organization enormously different from the out-of-touch Vatican. At the Catholic-run hospital here in Sonsonate, doctors tell women about IUD's and the pill — and especially about using condoms to protect against AIDS. Their humanitarian work is a reminder that the Catholic Church is much greater than the Vatican: local priests and nuns often ignore the troglodytes in Rome and quietly do what they can to save parishioners from AIDS.

"The bishop is in San Salvador and never comes here," explains Dr. Martha Alica De Regalada. "So we never get in trouble."

The Vatican has consistently opposed condoms and safe-sex education, even claiming falsely that condoms don't protect against AIDS. That's on par with the church under Pope Urban VIII putting Galileo under house arrest — except that this will have more deadly results.

Yet I take my hat off to the much broader Catholic Church that is toiling in the barrios of Latin America and the slums of Africa and Asia. Catholic Relief Services, one of the most vigorous aid organizations in the third world, is an example of humanitarianism at its noblest.

At ground level, priests apply doctrine with a flexibility that must drive the pope wild. In the desperately poor Salvadoran hillside village of Chucita, where campesinos live in shacks without water or electricity, a teacher explained how his fifth-grade class learns about dealing with AIDS.

"A social worker comes in with a banana and puts a condom on it," said the teacher, Eduardo Antonio Ascencio Mata. The priests, he says, have no objection.

In the remote Guatemalan town of Coatepeque, Maryknoll sisters run a first-rate AIDS clinic and prevention program, saving lives on a vast scale. They work with prostitutes and school children and explain how condoms can protect against AIDS.

So what about Vatican teachings?

"Certainly, God does not want us to kill each other," responded Marlene Condon, who works with AIDS patients. "You've got to do something."

Elsewhere in Coatepeque, some priests hold meetings where young people preparing for confirmation learn about AIDS — and condoms.

The Vatican has appointed hard-line bishops to eviscerate liberation theology and bring parishes back into line. Still, the French and German bishops' conferences have urged that condoms be permitted to fight AIDS, and Bishop Kevin Dowling of South Africa is pushing hard for the church to change policy to save lives.

Just this month, Catholics for a Free Choice and 20 other Catholic organizations called on bishops to accept condoms as a way to fight AIDS.

The irony is that no organization does more to help AIDS victims and their orphans than the Catholic Church. Some 25 percent of AIDS care worldwide is provided by church- related groups. Yet the Vatican blindly opposes condoms, even within a marriage when a husband or wife is infected with H.I.V. A member of the Kenyan Parliament has called the church "the greatest impediment in the fight against H.I.V./AIDS."

Let's hope the Vatican will learn from its priests and nuns on the ground, who do so much heroic work fighting the disease. In Coatepeque, I spoke with Father Mario Adolfo Dominguez, who sighed as I grilled him on the theology of condoms.

"We don't recommend the use of condoms, but we're not opposed to their use because we know they prevent AIDS," he said, looking nervous as I wrote down his words. "There is no contradiction between Christianity and a piece of rubber."