Johannesburg (CNSNews.com) - The use of condoms could be one of the main reasons for the spread of AIDS in southern Africa, according to Roman Catholic bishops in the region.
In a statement at the end of a week-long conference in Pretoria, the bishops argued that the battle against HIV/AIDS should be fought on moral grounds and that condoms helped spread the disease.
Bishops from South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland found the use of condoms fueled the AIDS epidemic by contributing to "the breaking down of self control and mutual respect."
Condoms were an "immoral and misguided weapon" in the fight against the disease, they argued.
"Abstain and be faithful is the human and Christian way of overcoming HIV/AIDS," their statement concluded.
The strong re-affirmation of the church's view on artificial contraceptives dashed hopes that the bishops would re-open debate on the issue in the light of the region's massive AIDS epidemic.
"Condoms don't make a difference," said Bishop Michael Coleman, vice-president of the Southern African Catholics Bishops Conference. "This country is saturated with condoms yet we have the highest rates of AIDS [transmission] in the world. Promoting condoms increases the incidence of AIDS."
One passage in the bishops' statement, however, did seem unwittingly to endorse the protective role of condoms. It said married couples could use condoms when one or both of them is HIV positive, and provided they abstain from sex while the woman is ovulating. In this way there would be no artificial barrier to the propagation of life.
AIDS charities have described the bishops' refusal to relax the ban on condoms as unfortunate.
"The use of condoms provides us with a solution that ensures we scale down the rate of the epidemic," the director of the National Association of People Living with Aids, Nkululeko Nxesi, said in a recent interview.
"You need a back-up system and condoms provide that."
Health workers have asked community leaders, including clergy, to help promote condom use.
South Africa's Health Department said it was dismayed by the bishops' statement. It was sad that one of the few methods of preventing the transmission of HIV and thus saving millions of lives had been characterized as immoral and misguided, it said in a statement.
The department rejected the bishops' claim that condoms were a major contributor to the epidemic, saying there was "overwhelming scientific evidence" that condom usage was "both preventive and protective."
The bishops' stance has not escaped some criticism from within the church, either. One senior churchman, Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg, repeatedly called on the church to reconsider its position and sanction condoms as a means of "preventing the transmission of death - and therefore not as a contraceptive to prevent the transmission of life."
Dowling's views are believed to be shared by many priests and nuns dealing with AIDS at a community level. They also received editorial backing from the main Catholic newspaper in South Africa, Southern Cross.
Interviewed before this week's conference, Dowling said he had been moved to question the status quo by his experience of the epidemic in his diocese.
The mining region around Rustenburg is one of the hotspots in a country where up to five million people - more than one in 10 - are HIV positive.
About 1,500 people are infected with HIV each day in South Africa, and it is estimated that the continent will have 28 million AIDS orphans by 2010.
Some leading Catholics have warned that the church's continuing insistence on abstinence as the only weapon against AIDS risks undermining its moral authority in the face of realities on the ground.
In a personal statement last month, Dowling said: "If we simply proclaim a message that condoms cannot be used under any circumstances, either directly or through not trying to articulate a proper response to the crisis we face, then I believe people will find difficulty in believing that we are committed as a church to a compassionate and caring response to people who are suffering, often in appalling living conditions."