ROME, SEPT. 19, 2000 ( Headlines around the world last weekend trumpeted a "change" in Vatican attitudes about the use of condoms. Those headlines, however, twist the content of the very article they claim to be citing.

The problem arose in the most recent edition of America magazine, in an article by Jesuit Dr. Jon Fuller and Fr. James Keenan. The authors cite as evidence for this change in Vatican thinking an article by Msgr. Jacques Suaudeau of the Pontifical Council for the Family, published in the April 5 edition of L'Osservatore Romano.

The America article is, in itself, a rather measured piece. It points out how Msgr. Suaudeau endorses abstinence and cites Christian understanding of sexuality as the most human preventive approach toward AIDS. Fathers Fuller and Keenan, however, claim there is a degree of tolerance toward distribution of condoms in certain circumstances in Msgr. Suaudeau's article, which they hope can be used to break down the resistance of local bishops who defend the Church's ban on their use.

The America article was picked up by the Pittsburgh Post/Gazette and later by the UPI agency, thus covering the globe rapidly. Similar articles appeared in the New York Times, the London Telegraph, and Canada's Post-Dispatch. The versions that appeared in the secular press lost the measured tone of the America article, and cited a "theological U-turn" in Vatican thinking.

The Telegraph article claims that Msgr. Suaudeau wrote, "If people want to prevent AIDS they must be convinced to change their sexual behaviour. Until a real effort is made in this regard... the prophylactic is one of the best ways to contain the sexual transmission of HIV and AIDS."

The actual article does contain words similar to these, but the ellipsis is very significant. Msgr. Suaudeau's actual words (taken from L'Osservatore Romano English edition of April 19) were, "If people really want to prevent AIDS, they must be convinced to change their sexual behavior, which is the principal cause of the infection's spread. Until a real effort is made in this regard, no true prevention will be achieved. The prophylactic is one of the ways to 'contain' the sexual transmission of HIV/AIDS, that is, to limit its transmission."

The out-of-context quote has turned the meaning of this text around. Msgr. Suaudeau's whole text centers on the difference between efforts for "prevention" and for "containment" of AIDS. Referring to the historic containment efforts againt malaria, he states, "Effective in theory, these measures proved ineffective in practice."

In fact, the statement about AIDS "containment" programs involving the use of condoms is followed by a long paragraph explaining why such programs are doomed to fail in the end. He states that the effectiveness of condoms in fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic has never been statistically proven, and is in fact unprovable "because of the multiple factors influencing the spread of the epidemic."

Near the end of the article, Msgr. Suaudeau cites attempts in Thailand to stem sexually transmitted diseases by handing out condoms to prostitutes. While he does use the term "lesser evil" to describe this practice, he nonetheless condemns it: "In the case of Thailand, the effort of the health-care authorities was focused on prostitutes and their clients. The use of condoms had particularly good results for these people with regard to the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. However, it is unclear whether or not the promotion of condoms in this country has had an effect on the overall advance of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The use of prophylactics in these circumstances is actually a 'lesser evil,' but it cannot be proposed as a model of humanization and development. Perhaps Thailand's authorities might have asked themselves first about the reasons for the particular growth of prostitution in their country."

The message of Msgr. Suaudeau's article, "Prophylactics or Family Values? Stopping the Spread of HIV/AIDS" is simple: "Family Values." "Wherever there is true education in values of the family, of fidelity, of marital chastity, the true meaning of the mutual gift of self -- and this seriously involves the State as well -- and wherever the intrusive forms of promiscuity are overcome, man will achieve a human victory, even over this terrible phenomenon."

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