ROME, Jan. 19 -- Spain's Roman Catholic bishops retreated Wednesday from a stand taken a day earlier by their spokesman that gave condoms a place in the prevention of AIDS. That position was at odds with strict Vatican prohibitions on the use of contraception.
A statement issued by the Spanish bishops' conference declared: "It's not true that the Church has changed its doctrine on condoms.
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"It is impossible to advise the use of condoms," because according to Catholic teaching, "condom use implies immoral sexual conduct," the statement continued. Instead, it said, the Catholic Church promotes education in favor of "faithful conjugal love" in order to avoid "risky situations."
On Tuesday, the bishops' conference spokesman, Juan Antonio Martinez Camino, told reporters in Madrid that "the time has come for a joint strategy in the prevention of such a tragic pandemic as AIDS, and contraception has a place in the context of the integral and global prevention of AIDS."
He put condom use in the context of a program known as ABC, which stands for Abstinence, Be faithful and Condom use, and which emphasizes abstinence or fidelity to a single partner as the most effective ways to hinder the spread of AIDS.
"Sex with condoms is not safe, it's just less unsafe," he said.
Martinez's remarks, published in Italian newspapers Wednesday, created a stir in the Vatican. Bishop Jose Luis Redrado Machite, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers, asserted that use of condoms was "contrary to Catholic morality."
One Vatican official conjectured that the Spanish bishops' conference may have been following the influence of Jesuit leaders in appearing to accept condom use. Jesuit clerics in Africa, where the spread of AIDS is among the most severe in the world, have openly pressed for the condom ban to be lifted.
No bishops' conference in the world has openly overturned the papal ban on contraception. To do so would challenge the doctrine of papal infallibility that holds the pope's words as true and incontrovertible.
Martinez made his remarks after a meeting with Spain's health minister, Elena Salgado. She was lobbying the Spanish church to stop questioning the effectiveness of condoms.
Last year, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, director of the Vatican's Council for the Family, told the BBC that the AIDS virus "can easily pass through the net that is formed by the condom." The assertion sparked criticism from health groups that said the Vatican, instead of acting to save lives, was trying to scare people away from preventative means. Condom use is part of an anti-AIDS strategy promoted by the World Health Organization.
Martinez's comments marked the second time in a week that a ranking Catholic clergyman seemed to go against the Vatican's condom ban. On Jan. 13, Belgian Cardinal Godfried Daneels told the Dutch Catholic broadcaster RKK: "When someone is HIV positive and his partner says, 'I want to have sexual relations with you,' he doesn't have to do that. . . . But if he does, he has to use a condom."
"This comes down to protecting yourself in a preventive manner against disease or death," he said. "It cannot be entirely judged in the same manner as a pure method of birth control."
There is no sign that Pope John Paul II is wavering from the ban on contraception. On the other hand, in recent statements on moral issues facing Catholics, contraception has not taken its usual place alongside abortion and other prohibited practices.
In the 1995 Evangelium Vitae or "Gospel of Life" document, the pontiff lumped contraception with abortion and euthanasia as practices embraced by "a civilization of affluence and pleasure" that exists "as though sin did not exist, and as if God did not exist."
His teachings on contraception closely track dogma laid down by one of his predecessors, Pope Paul VI, who said that "each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relation to the procreation of human life."