- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 28, 2009

The controversy over Pope Benedict XVI’s rejection of condoms in fighting the AIDS epidemic keeps growing despite the warm response the octogenarian pontiff received on a trip to Africa last week.

On Friday, the Lancet medical journal wrote in an editorial that the pope “publicly distorted scientific evidence to promote Catholic doctrine on this issue,” and urged him to retract his comments.

“Anything less … would be an immense disservice to the public and health advocates, including many thousands of Catholics, who work tirelessly to try and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS worldwide,” the editorial said.

Meanwhile, Der Spiegel magazine reported Friday that organizers of a Facebook protest have orchestrated a mass mailing of condoms to the Vatican by tens of thousands of Europeans.

The pope’s remarks en route to Cameroon, the first stop on his two-nation trip, provoked an especially angry reaction in France, the country’s former colonial ruler.

A CSA poll for Le Parisian, published after the pope’s remarks, said 57 percent of French people had a negative opinion of Benedict compared with only 32 percent six months earlier.

A separate IFOP poll for Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper found 43 percent of French Catholics want the pope to resign.

It was the first time Benedict pronounced publicly on condoms, calling AIDS a tragedy “that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems.”

In saying that condoms may worsen the epidemic, the pontiff arguably moved beyond official church doctrine.

But the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s chief spokesman, said Benedict intended to emphasize that the focus on condom distribution takes away from the focus on sexual conduct.

The “essential principles” regarding HIV/AIDS prevention are “education about people’s responsibility in the use of sexuality” and the “essential role of marriage and family,” Father Lombardi said.

Despite the controversy, the pope’s seven-day visit to Angola and Cameroon generated massive, enthusiastic crowds.

The need to end corruption and share wealth was a recurring theme of Benedict´s trip.

“Our hearts cannot find peace while there are still brothers and sisters who suffer from lack of food, work, shelter and other fundamental goods,” the pope said while standing next to Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos. An estimated 1 million people attended the pope’s open-air Mass in Angola.

Throughout his journey, Benedict, who will be 82 next month, pressed to make his plea for better governance heard over the furor.

French human rights minister Rama Yade said she was “dumbfounded” by the pope’s comments. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called them “the opposite of tolerance and understanding.”

France is traditionally a Catholic country, although less than 10 percent of the population attends Sunday Mass. Germany and Belgium also criticized his message, as did some AIDS activists in Africa.

The condemnation was not unanimous, however.

Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant’Egidio community, which fights AIDS in Africa, dismissed the criticism of the pope as conformism.

“As soon as he speaks, people say he is wrong and as soon as he says something, people look for the mistake,” he told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

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