European Roman Catholics defy Church's teachings on sex

Paris, France - As cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church prepare to choose a new pope the gulf between the Church's teaching on sexual issues and the actual practices of the faithful in Europe remains as deep as ever.

Many Catholics ignore, sometimes but by no means always with a feeling of guilt, the moral norms laid down by the Vatican, while some priests try to soften their impact by pointing out that the Church's line is less rigid than sometimes believed.

The ban on contraception is one issue where the rules of the Church are massively ignored, as to a lesser extent is the forbidding of abortion. But homosexuality, divorce and the role of women are other fields where the hierarchy and much of the laity hold conflicting views.

In Spain, for example, traditionally a strongly Roman Catholic country, four young people in five say they regularly use contraceptives and in 2003 80,000 abortions were carried out. Three-quarters of Spaniards think the Church's leadership is out of step with the realities of society.

In France a 2004 survey found 75 percent of Catholics had never changed their sexual habits "for religious reasons."

Even in Italy, where religious observance is holding up better than in some other countries, more and more people are ignoring Church teachings on sexual matters: the number of unmarried couples has doubled in 10 years and fewer and fewer couples opt for a religious service.

Poland, the homeland of the late Pope John Paul II, is strongly Catholic and has had since 1993 one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. But half of Poles reject the ban on contraception, according to a Catholic statistics organisation, and 57 percent want a more liberal approach to abortion.

In predominantly Catholic Belgium, where Christian Democratic parties have long been in government, euthanasia and gay marriage, both anathema to the Church, have been the subject of liberal legislation.

Abortion is legal and the cost of contraceptives reimbursed by the state. Meanwhile church attendance is falling and there are fewer candidates for the priesthood.

In Hungary, lesbianism among young women, the level of abortions, the early age at which the young start sexual relations and the collapse of traditional marriage are worrying the Church.

According to a spokesman for the Archbishop of Vienna, there are no figures in Austria for abortion as it is considered a private matter -- despite the protests of the Church. It said that in 2003, there were 37,195 civil marriages and 12,545 church marriages. "In the same year unfortunately we had 18,727 divorces," the spokesman said.

On the issues of contraception and abortion, according to Christian Terras, editor of the radical French Catholic magazine Golias, John Paul II "did not understand the problems of women in the modern world."

Homosexuality is another area of controversy. According to a spokesman for the Spanish bishops' conference in 2002 it is "a sin and mental disorder."

John Paul II's attitude to the prevention of AIDS "drives away Christians who cannot subscribe to the single injunction of chastity and fidelity", according to the French organisation Chretiens-Sida (Christians-AIDS), founded by a Dominican priest.

Across Europe, notably in Britain and France, groups have sprung up to challenge traditional teachings on homosexuality.

Church leaders have responded to the discontent by arguing that the late pope was "misunderstood".

The Church "lays down moral norms, sometimes very demanding ones, but it believes in the freedom of personal conscience and does not condemn," according to Monsignor Herve Giraud, in charge of ethical questions in the French Catholic Church.

"Our position appears rigid, but it is more humane than people believe."

Referring to divorced Catholics who resent their rejection, Giraud said that "they are still believers, it is up to them to find their place in the Church.

"Moral teaching consists in laying down what is forbidden while leaving freedom of action."

But for Terras of the magazine Golias: "The Church is living through a real divorce with society."