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S. African Catholics Aren't Practicing What Pope Preached

"The more activist a Catholic is in the work of [fighting] AIDS, the more likely that person is to advocate condoms as a second line of defense" after abstinence, said Gunther Simmermacher, editor of the Southern Cross, a Catholic weekly newspaper in Cape Town. "Any Catholic who's been in a shack, in a hut, and watched a person die of AIDS is going to say, 'Yeah, use a condom.' "

But some Catholics who advocate the use of condoms in certain circumstances are wary of spreading the message too widely for fear that it could undercut the church's teaching on sexual morality. They also say that years of condom distribution throughout southern Africa have barely made a dent in the spread of HIV.


Luyanda Ngonyama, 32, is an active Catholic and AIDS activist who opposes church teachings on condoms. (Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)

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Sister Christine Jacob, who oversees a rural medical facility outside Pretoria that provides antiretroviral drugs and other care for AIDS sufferers, said she would counsel a 20-year-old woman contemplating sex to abstain. And teenagers, she said, routinely ask the clinic to provide condoms but are denied.

"Our biggest fear is -- and this has been proved -- by saying 'condomize,' it's giving license" for sex, Jacob said.

But faced with a mother who had no choice but to have sex for money to feed her family, Jacob said she would "say to use a condom."

In the Cape Town area, the Rev. Stefan Hippler goes much further, advocating condoms in most circumstances where the risk of infection is present. "I have seen too many people dying," he said. "We are advocating life, and here is the life of people at stake."

Ngonyama reached the same conclusion, and it was a factor in his decision to stop working for the church, he said. He still considers himself committed to the faith, however, and attends Mass each Sunday.

He says having the church out of step with public opinion on the question of condoms drives away the faithful, who end up looking elsewhere for answers.

Ngonyama said he had a deeper concern: that the opposition of the church to condoms would be heeded by some Catholics who, as a result, would get AIDS.

"People are listening to this," Ngonyama said.


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