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A demonstration of the proper use of a condom is conducted at a community health center in Malabon City on Nov. 21.  (EPA/Rolex Dela Pena)

 

MANILA — Malacañang welcomed the pronouncement of Pope Benedict XVI that condom use may be allowed to prevent the spread of HIV-AIDS, and urged local Church officials to take the same stand because “they cannot be more popish than the Pope.”

“That’s a good step. I think our own clergy should be informed by the views of the Vatican because they’ve always referred to the Vatican when they stated their position, now that the Vatican’s position is such then I think that should result in a corresponding flexibility on the part of our Church,” Presidential Communications Development Secretary Ricky Carandang said.

Carandang said the Pope’s statement could “absolutely” boost support for the Reproductive Health (RH) bill.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said a meeting on the RH bill between the Palace and the CBCP has been tentatively scheduled between Dec. 7 and 15.

President Benigno Aquino III has said he is for responsible parenthood, including educating couples on how to plan their families and providing them assistance with artificial birth control methods such as the use of condoms.

“I don’t want to misquote the Pope. I think he was very qualified in what he said but still what you can say is the Pope has shown some flexibility on an issue that is still controversial here. It’s not controversial in the rest of the world anymore,” Carandang said. “I think the Pope’s position should inform the position of the local clergy. Like I said, our clergy cannot be more popish than the Pope.”

In excerpts of his upcoming book, the Pope cites the example of the use of condoms by prostitutes as “a first step toward moralization,” even though condoms are “not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection.”

The 219-page book embodies Benedict’s responses to questions raised by German Catholic journalist Peter Seewald in over a month of meetings at the papal summer residence.

On the Pope’s mention of condom use as justified in certain cases, such as by prostitutes, Seewald asked: “Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?”

The Pope answered: “She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”

Appeal to local Church

Militant lawmakers also lauded Benedict’s declaration and urged local Church leaders to show the same “open-mindedness on social realities.”

“It is time to consider the plight of the poor, the sick and the marginalized in particular and the flock in general,” Rep. Luz Ilagan of the party-list group Gabriela said.

Ilagan said the Pope’s declaration “boost our Reproductive Health Bill because one of its provisions is protection from HIV/AIDS.”

“If the condom is seen by the Pope as a way of protecting people against this increasing plague in our world, then we believe this is the beginning of a rational discussion of what the RH is all about,” she said.

She said Gabriela’s version of the RH bill is not only about contraceptives.

“We really want comprehensive health services especially for poor, marginalized women,” she added.

She pointed out that the Pope’s statement could lead to an “open, rational” discussion of the RH measure.

Another party-list representative, Kaka Bag-ao of Akbayan, said lawmakers should treat the RH bill as a “public health and not a theological issue.”

“By justifying the use of condoms to fight the spread of HIV and AIDS, the Pope is making a realistic stance to address the spread of a deadly virus which can be prevented by effective and consistent use of condoms and providing programs such as sex education to discuss vulnerabilities to infection, prevention and treatment of HIV and AIDS,” Clara Rita Padilla, executive director of EnGenderRights, said.

“At the start of 2010, there are already four new cases being reported every day compared to the two new cases reported daily in 2009,” she said.

 

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Pope Benedict XVI with then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo during their meeting at the Vatican in June 2006.

 

Padilla said the Department of Health’s National Epidemiology Center projected that by December this year, there will be 1,500 more Filipinos infected with HIV.

Of the total 4,424 reported cases of HIV, 90 percent got infected through sexual contact, she said.

“The Pope has already exhibited some openness in the use of condoms to prevent HIV/AIDS, why can’t the CBCP do that? The CBCP should reconsider its stand on condoms,” Reproductive Health Alliance Network (RHAN) secretary- general Elizabeth Angsioco said in a phone interview.

Angsioco added the CBCP is contradicting itself when it opposes condoms as a means to avoid contracting HIV but endorses a training manual that recognizes condom as a tool for curbing AIDS.

The training manual, she claimed, was designed for Catholic Church pastoral workers and was prepared by the Philippine National AIDS Council and Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development Foundation (PLCPD) executive director Ramon San Pascual also lauded Benedict’s statement, saying “the papal statement is a welcome shift of Catholic position on condoms, even if it sounds convoluted.”

“We hope that the Catholic hierarchy will follow suit by opening up its mind on contraceptives,” he maintained.

Out of context

In Dagupan City, retired Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz said Benedict “was taken out of context and the quotations were not according to the whole.”

“Perhaps what they wrote were only bits and pieces and they failed to get his message in its entirety,” he said over Bombo Radyo Dagupan.

He said RH advocates would surely ride on the issue.

“Of course it is understandable they are already doing that. All the ammunitions they could use, they would sure fire them to succeed in their aim but it is difficult to succeed firing the wrong ammunition,” he said.

He said that while the RH bill might be approved eventually along with other controversial measures like the divorce bill, “this doesn’t mean that that is correct.”

But the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) said it could not yet issue a “definite statement” on the Pope’s pronouncement.

“Since the book is not yet available, and I think the bishops (of the Philippines) have not yet read it, we could not make any definite statement on the matter,” CBCP secretary-general Monsignor Juanito Figura said in a statement.

“For the moment, what is clear as reported is that the Holy Father’s latest teaching on condom use does not in any way change the position of the Church against artificial contraception.

Likewise as reported, neither does the Holy Father speak of it in the context of population issues,” he said.

“He speaks of condom as a permissible tool, not the primary tool, to arrest further spread of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV); condom is not the moral solution of the alarming spread of the virus and disease,” he said.

“We are expecting an official Vatican statement tomorrow...from there, we shall make our own statement,” said CBCP-Episcopal Commission on Family and Life (ECFL) executive secretary Fr. Melvin Castro.

For his part, Davao City Rep. Karlo Nograles accused reproductive health proponents of “exaggerating” their interpretation of the Pope’s statement “to beguile those who are opposed to it.”

“As far as I am concerned, the real debate is whether or not there is really a need to enact a law on population management,” he said.

“There is no question that some families need to limit the number of their children but the use of various birth control methods, whether natural or artificial, is being practiced by many Filipino families long before many of us, including those who are pushing this bill, were even born. There’s nothing in our laws that stops us from planning the size of our families so I don’t see any sense why we even need this RH bill,” he said.

He added that even without any Reproductive Health law, the government has been spending millions of funds to buy condoms and other contraceptives purportedly for population management.

“Therefore, it is completely unnecessary for Congress to be crafting a law that basically compels the government to do the same thing,” he stressed.

For his part, Parañaque Rep. Roilo Golez said the Pope “did not say the Church is not at all opposed to condom use especially to fight AIDS.”

“He said it is for male prostitutes with AIDS so they don’t infect others,” he clarified.

“The pro-RH folks should address male prostitutes with AIDS to promote condoms if they are in agreement with the Pope’s stand,” Golez said.