BY CRISTINA ODONE AND CECILIA BROMLEY-MARTIN
IN A LANDMARK decision that has sent shock-waves through the Catholic Church worldwide, French bishops have officially accepted that condoms are necessary to stop the spread of Aids.
The decision, made this week, runs counter to Vatican teaching, restated only two months ago in a set of sexual guidelines that insisted "Safe sex" was "dangerous and immoral", and condoms could not prevent Aids.
The French Bishops' report, Aids: Society in Question, instead claims that "Many competent doctors state that a reliable condom is today the only means of prevention. In this respect, it is necessary."
Julian Filochowski, Director of CAFOD, told the Catholic Herald that the overseas aid agency welcomed the statement "as part of the wider discussion taking place in the Church about the role of condoms in preventing the transmission of death through Aids."
He went on:"It is an issue in Africa and Asia, but there's far more to the prevention of Aids than the distribution of condoms, and we believe it would be a mistake to reduce the whole issue simply to `condomology'."
In France, the country with the highest number of HIV and Aids cases in Europe, the Chairman of the Catholic Committee of French Doctors welcomed the bishops' document: "Aids is finally being addressed", he said. "In the past, we had a vague admission that condoms could be a means of prevention when the two other options, chastity and fidelity, were not possible."
The bishops' report was compiled by the episcopate's social commission and comes one year after controversial Bishop Jacques Gaillot was ousted by the Vatican for supporting the use of condoms to stop the spread of the disease.
The bishops' statement stressed that "In advising young people to use condoms rather than help them understand their sexual identities, we make them prisoners of their sexual drives."
The French bishops underlined that the use of condoms was not a foolproof means to prevent the spread of Aids, and that attitudes towards sex would have to be changed.
Dr Peter Doherty, editor of the Catholic Medical Quarterly, told the Herald: "The condom is not a reliable preventative against STDs and certainly does not stop the transmission of the HIV virus. Studies by the World Health Organisation in 1990 showed that they only give 40 per cent protection.
"The actual head of a sperm measures three microns, and they can sometimes get through a condom; the HIV virus measures 0.3microns. A condom may provide short-term protection, but in the long-term they will inevitably fail,"he said.
James Le Fanu, a Catholic doctor in Britain, welcomed the statement. He told the Catholic Herald that "It is a cause of great sadness to Catholic doctors like myself to find oneself in the invidious position of appearing to be part of a Church whose teachings can be so utterly contrary to common sense and obvious scientific observation.
"Because of this, the report from the bishops of France is a hopeful sign that a modicum of commonsense is finally beginning to penetrate the Church's teaching on this matter.
Catholic doctors and theologians contributed to the six-month consultation between the bishops and a panel of medics.