Catholics' faith in Pope falters on condom issue - Feature

Rome, Italy - Legend has it that rubbish collectors in Rome made a startling discovery at the end of World Youth Day 2000. Hundreds of thousands of young Catholics had flocked to the Italian capital to attend celebrations culminating in a Mass presided over by Pope John Paul II.

When it was all over, the collectors sifted through debris left behind on a field transformed by participants into a gigantic campsite during the week-long duration of the religious fest.

Their find: thousands of used condoms.

Critics of the Vatican's doctrinal stance against birth control and extra-marital sex - which holds that it is a sin to use a condom - held up the discovery in triumph.

It amounted to proof, the critics said, that many young Catholics were dispensing with those aspects of their faith they considered reactionary, just as easily as they were rolling on condoms.

Officials of the Diocese of Rome, whose bishop is the pope, angrily dismissed the reports.

They described them as an "urban myth" and accused television media of "fabricating evidence" when images purportedly backing up the reports were broadcast.

Aspects of the controversy linger on in Italy.

Emma Bonino, a former cabinet minister and leader of the ultra- secular Radical Party, has repeatedly referred to it when campaigning - so far unsuccessfully - that recognition be granted in terms of Italian law to same-sex and unmarried couples.

Catholic politicians who oppose such legislation, on the grounds that it would run counter to the country's "religious heritage," are guilty of hypocrisy as much as those who choose to ignore the condoms "carpeting" the Tor Vergata field, Bonino says.

Yet the contradiction highlighted by Bonino and others is perhaps not entirely surprising in Italy, where over 90 per cent of the population describes itself as Roman Catholic.

Nudity dominated Renaissance art at a time when a large swathe of the country was ruled directly by popes who were also responsible for commissioning many of the paintings and sculptures. Today, skimpily dressed showgirls routinely appear on TV political talk shows together with Christian Democrat politicians.

It seems that Roman Catholicism can, in its heartland, co-exist with overt sexuality, at least on a surface level.

More to do with substance is the fact that Italians have one of the lowest-birth rates in the world, indicating that for the majority, sex is an act separated from the strict procreation-within-marriage purposes as defined by the Vatican.

This is despite the fact that Pope Paul VI had, through a 1968 encyclical, branded contraception as a grave sin, a position reiterated by Pope John Paul II.

Still, modern developments such as AIDS have posed new challenges to the Church's ban on condoms, especially in cases where HIV infection threatens people who would otherwise be following the Vatican's directives on keeping sex within the context of marriage.

An example frequently cited is when one spouse, infected with HIV through a blood transfusion, runs the risk of passing on the disease to the other through unprotected sex.

John Paul remained unswayed, seemingly applying to such couples the same restrictions prescribed by the Vatican to sex outside marriage that of total abstinence.

Surprisingly, given his conservative reputation, Pope Benedict XVI commissioned a study on the use of condoms to combat AIDS early in 2006, raising the hopes of many, including health agencies operating in badly affected areas in Africa, that the Catholic ban would be lifted.

Two years on, there is little sign this is about to happen.

It is a situation which has prompted activists to protest by organizing the free distribution of condoms to participants of the 2008 edition of World Youth Day running from 15-20 July in Sydney.

Even more sacrilegious, for some Catholic observers, is the decision of some Sydney brothels which have reportedly recruited extra staff in anticipation of brisk business during the event.

Benedict has referred to AIDS in recent meetings with African ambassadors to the Holy See, but has not dropped any hints on a change in doctrine on condoms.

He told them that "the Church would continue to assist those who suffer from AIDS and to support their families."

But the pontiff also said that while medicine and education have a part in combating he disease, "promiscuous sexual conduct is a root cause of many moral and physical ills and must be overcome by promoting a culture of marital faithfulness and moral integrity."