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Cardinal defies pope on condoms

LOSING GRIP: Catholic liberals are becoming more assertive as the pope's health declines, with a Belgian cardinal saying that condom use can be defended

Wednesday, Jan 14, 2004,Page 7

A Belgian cardinal who is among the leading candidates to succeed Pope John Paul on Monday broke the Roman Catholic Church's taboo on the use of condoms, declaring that in certain circumstances they should be used to prevent the spread of AIDS.

Godfried Danneels, one of the few moderate cardinals in the Church after more than a quarter of a century of conservative rule by the current pontiff, was careful to say he preferred abstinence as a means of prevention.

But he added that if someone who was HIV-positive did have sex, failing to use a condom would be sinful -- a contravention of the sixth commandment: thou shalt not kill.

His comments were a further sign that the ailing pope may be losing some grip on the more liberal wing of his immense church. Shortly after being named a "prince of the church" in September last year, Cardinal Keith O'Brien of Scotland said that the ban on contraception should be debated, along with such issues as priestly celibacy and homosexual clergy.

In an interview with the Dutch Catholic broadcaster RKK, Cardinal Danneels said: "When someone is HIV positive and his partner says `I want to have sexual relations with you,' he doesn't have to do that, if you ask me. But, when he does, he has to use a condom."

He added: "This comes down to protecting yourself in a preventive manner against a disease or death. (It) cannot be entirely morally judged in the same manner as a pure method of birth control."

The cardinal's argument emphasizes the importance of human life, the very factor that the pope has long evinced as justification for a ban on all forms of contraception.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that abstinence, including between married couples, is the only morally acceptable way to prevent the spread of AIDS.

Danneels' views clashed head-on with those aired last year by Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, the Vatican's top adviser on family questions. The Colombian cardinal claimed that condoms could not halt the HIV virus because it was small enough to pass through them. He said relying on them to prevent infection was like "betting on your own death."

Cardinal Lopez's remarks were condemned by, among others, the World Health Organization, which said condoms reduced the risk of infection by 90 percent.

A Dutch-speaking Belgian, Cardinal Danneels is widely respected by conservatives and liberals alike for his lively intellect. But he is no stranger to controversy.

In 2000, he caused consternation in the Vatican by suggesting that popes should not remain in office until they die but should have limited terms.

In his book Frankly: Six Discussions with the Cardinal, he also caused offence by suggesting that Pope John Paul was himself poised to stand down.

The 70-year old Archbishop of Brussels and Mechelen has also raised eyebrows by saying he favors the death penalty in certain cases and by arguing that asylum seekers should not seek refuge in churches.

Although sometimes labeled a traditionalist, he has shown himself to be a liberal on a number of matters. He has called for flexibility and leniency for Catholics who divorce and then remarry without obtaining a church-sanctioned annulment, and has said he advocates women playing a larger role in the Catholic Church.


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