ROME, Jan. 22 -- After several days of unusual public debate among senior figures in the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II on Saturday reaffirmed church teaching that urges abstinence and marital fidelity to stop the spread of AIDS and forbids condoms.
"The Holy See . . . considers that it is necessary above all to combat this disease in a responsible way by increasing prevention, notably through education about respect of the sacred value of life and formation of the correct practice of sexuality, which presupposes chastity and fidelity."
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In the Vatican's teaching, phrases such as "sacred value of life" and "correct practice of sexuality" generally preclude contraception.
His words followed a week in which a high official of Spain's Bishops Conference said there was "a place" for condoms in AIDS prevention, but then was overruled by the full Bishops Conference, and other leaders weighed in to suggest publicly that a policy change might be appropriate.
In recent days, the pope has also stressed the role of Catholic health workers in tending to the AIDS-stricken. "At my request, the church has mobilized in favor of the victims and especially in order to assure access to help and the necessary medical care through a number of treatment centers," he said. He was referring to the Holy See's Good Samaritan Foundation, established last year to coordinate funds and organizations to help AIDS victims.
The Vatican has depicted contraception as part of an attack on the "culture of life" because it blocks the creation of children. On Saturday, John Paul II also repeated the Vatican's condemnation of euthanasia, which the Netherlands has legalized and which in the pontiff's view is an example of the "culture of death."
"The Holy See has made known its clear position and invites Catholics in the Netherlands always to show their absolute respect for human life, from conception to natural death," the pope said in the statement.
Pope Paul VI banned the use of contraception 37 years ago, and at that time the issue was almost entirely birth control. Ever since, high church officials have considered the question largely to be closed. But the AIDS pandemic has led to calls from some corners of the global church for authorizing at least one form of contraception -- condoms -- as a means of preventing HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from spreading.
Two cardinals in Europe this week separately spoke of a hypothetical situation in which use of a condom might be justified: when a woman must have sex with someone who is infected with HIV and therefore must protect herself.
And in Mexico City, a bishop said at a news conference Friday that condom use could be a "lesser evil" if employed to prevent AIDS. "If someone is incapable of controlling their instincts . . . then they should do whatever is necessary in order not to infect others," said Felipe Arizmendi, bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, in far southern Mexico.
The comments followed months of ferment in the church over how to approach AIDS prevention. Last year, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) published a paper urging a range of methods to fight AIDS.
"For many in Africa and Asia, sex is often the only commodity people have to exchange for food, school fees, exam results, employment or survival itself in situations of violence," the paper said. "Any strategy that enables a person to move from a higher-risk towards the lower end of the continuum, CAFOD believes, is a valid risk reduction strategy."
Vatican officials have said that in the field some individual priests or health care workers might see fit to counsel use of condoms in particular cases. But the officials emphasized that such instances did not represent a change in teaching.
"The problem is that anytime we try to give a nuanced response, we see headlines that say, 'Vatican approves condoms.' The issue is more complicated than that," Monsignor Angel Rodriguez Luno, a professor of moral theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, said on Friday. "From a moral point of view, we cannot condone contraception. We cannot tell a classroom of 16-year-olds they should use condoms.
"But if we are dealing with someone or a situation in which clearly persons are going to act in harmful ways, say, a prostitute who is going to continue her activities, then one might say, 'Stop. But if you are not going to, at least do this,' " said Luno, who is an adviser to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican department charged with safeguarding orthodoxy.
One possible avenue for a new condom policy would be a "lesser-of-two-evils" approach. In this regard, condoms could be approved as a means of reducing the instance of danger or sin in cases where someone is bent on having extramarital sex or sex with a spouse while infected with HIV.
Rodriguez Luno -- without endorsing a new policy -- placed the issue in the context of the Ten Commandments. Sex outside of marriage already breaks the Sixth Commandment, which forbids adultery, he said. "Infecting someone with AIDS would also mean sinning against the Fifth Commandment -- you shall not kill," he said. "Condoms would diminish that danger."