VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI told African bishops Friday that abstinence is the only “fail-safe” way to prevent the spread of HIV, reiterating the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching to the prelates from a continent ravaged by the virus.
The pope met with bishops from South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia and Lesotho. He has met previously with bishops from Burundi and Rwanda since assuming the papacy April 19, but this was the first time he took up the problem of the AIDS epidemic on the continent.
“It is of great concern that the fabric of African life, its very source of hope and stability, is threatened by divorce, abortion, prostitution, human trafficking and a contraceptive mentality, all of which contribute to a breakdown in sexual morality,” Benedict said.
The pope said he shared the bishops’ concern about the devastation caused by AIDS and that he prayed for “all those whose lives have been shattered by this cruel epidemic.”
The Vatican’s opposition to condoms has been criticized by those who advocate condom use as a way to help combat the spread of the HIV virus. However, several prelates have suggested that using condoms in order to prevent a death may be the lesser of evils.
The pope did not directly touch on that debate in his remarks.
“I urge you to continue your efforts to fight this virus, which not only kills but seriously threatens the economic and social stability of the continent,” Benedict said.
Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for more than 60 percent of the 40 million people infected with HIV worldwide. In March, a U.N. study predicted that more than 80 million Africans may die from AIDS by 2025 and infections could soar to 90 million – or more than 10 percent of the continent’s population – if more is not done to expand prevention programs and offer better access to drugs that can control the virus.
The pope said “the Catholic Church has always been at the forefront both in prevention and in treatment of this illness” and that “the traditional teaching of the church has proven to be the only fail-safe way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.”
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