Image: Pope Benedict XVI
Alessandro Bianchi  /  Reuters
Pope Benedict XVI arrives to meet Cameroon President Paul Biya and his wife, Chantal, at Unity Palace in Yaoundee on Wednesday.
updated 3/18/2009 7:07:40 PM ET 2009-03-18T23:07:40

The Vatican defended Pope Benedict XVI's rejection of condoms as a way to stop HIV after international criticism Wednesday that he was weakening the fight against the disease.

France and Germany sharply critiqued Benedict's declaration that distributing condoms "increases" the AIDS problem. The French foreign ministry said the statement could "endanger public health policies and the imperative to protect human life."

Two German ministers said on Benedict's first full day as pope in Africa, a continent ravaged by HIV, that it was irresponsible to reject condoms. The U.N. agency charged with fighting AIDS also spoke out in favor of condom use.

Benedict told reporters on his flight Tuesday to Cameroon that a responsible and moral attitude toward sex would help fight the disease.

"You can't resolve it with the distribution of condoms," he said. "On the contrary, it increases the problem."

Benedict's spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, described the criticism as "echoes caused by some words by the pope on the AIDS problems."

Lombardi said the church's "essential principles" in its commitment against AIDS were "education about people's responsibility in the use of sexuality" and the "essential role of marriage and family." The Vatican has long rejected the use of all contraception.

Lombardi said in the written statement at the end of the second day of the weeklong papal visit that the church stresses treatment for "the widest number of sick," and "human and spiritual assistance" to AIDS patients.

Pope: Church must help poor
The pope met with Cameroon President Paul Biya, one of Africa's longest-ruling strongmen. Biya has been in power since 1982 and recently was accused by Amnesty International of seeking to crush political opposition.

No details of the meeting at the presidential palace were given. Local churchmen have spoken out against human rights abuses and the newspaper Le Jour carried a front-page interview with Cameroon Cardinal Christian Tumi asking Biya not to run again in 2011.

Crowds were sparse as Benedict was driven through the city in a closed limousine.

He told Cameroon's 31 bishops that Christians must fight for social justice and urged them to defend the traditional African family from the dangers of modernity and secularization. He also asked them to help protect the poor from the impact of globalization.

Video: Africans' opinions mixed on condom comments Benedict said that while the Catholic church in Africa is the fastest growing in the world, it faces competition from increasingly popular evangelical movements and "the growing influence of superstitious forms of religion."

The German-born pope also said that exuberant African rites should not "obstruct" the liturgy of the Mass.

He called it the "duty" of Christians — particularly economic and political leaders — "to be guided by the church's social teaching, in order to contribute to the building up of a more just world where everyone can live with dignity."

The meeting with the bishops had long been planned for the cathedral in Yaounde, but construction there has not been finished. Lombardi said he was aware of allegations in the local media that the funds set aside were embezzled by clergy, but had no comment.

Benedict flies next to Angola.

The 81-year-old pontiff was holding up well in the torrid West African weather and felt "deeply moved" by the tens of thousands of people who turned out on the streets upon his arrival from Rome, Lombardi said.

More on: Pope Benedict   |  AIDS

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Photos: Papal visit to Africa

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  1. Pope Benedict XVI waves to the crowd as he arrives to celebrate Mass in Luanda, Angola, on Sunday, March 22. (Ciro Fusco / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A girl who fainted is carried through the crowd at a Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday in Luanda, Angola. (Gianluigi Guercia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A Angolan soldier on horseback helps control the crowd after Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass on Sunday in Angola. (Schalk Van Zuydam / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Onlookers scale a small hill to try to catch a glimpse of Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday in Angola. The pontiff is on a six-day visit to Africa. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Pope Benedict XVI arrives in a procession for Mass at the Cimangola open ground on the outskirts of Luanda, Angola, on Sunday. (Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A girl reacts as Pope Benedict XVI arrives at a gathering for young people in the city of Luanda, Angola, on Saturday, March 21. (Schalk Van Zuydam / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Pope Benedict XVI meets with the faithful during his visit in Luanda, Angola, on Saturday. (L' Osservatore Romano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Thousands gather in Luanda, Angola, Saturday, awaiting an appearance by Pope Benedict XVI. (Ciro Fusco / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Pope Benedict XVI watches Angolan dancers performing on the podium of Coqueiros stadium in Luanada on Saturday. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Pope Benedict XVI (in background) looks on as some twenty people representing three generations of the pygmies people present a dance for him, before he leaves the nunciature for Angola. (Osservatore Romano / pool via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Religious dignitaries wait for the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI at the airport in Yaounde where flew to Angola for the next stage of his African tour on March 20. (Issouf Sanogo / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Nuns from the St. John Community in Cameroon react as the plane carrying Pope Benedict XVI takes off, at the airport in Yaounde, Cameroonon on March 20. Pope Benedict XVI departed for Angola on the second leg of his first papal visit to Africa. (Rebecca Blackwell / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A woman carrying bread rolls on her head walks past a poster of Pope Benedict XVI in Luanda, Angola on March 20. (Themba Hadebe / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Pope Benedict XVI is welcomed by Angolan president Jose Eduardo dos Santos as he arrives at Luanda International airport March 20. (Joao Relvas / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Priests traditionally dressed attend a mass given by Pope Benedict XVI at the Amadou Ahidjo stadium in Yaounde on March 19. Pope Benedict XVI held the first giant mass of his Africa tour. (Issouf Sanogo / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Pope Benedict XVI greets the faithful as he celebrates a Mass in the Amadou Ahidjo stadium, in Yaounde, Cameroon, Thursday, March 19. (Andrew Medichini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. An African woman wears a cross outside of the Amadou Ahidjo stadium, where Pope Benedict XVI gave mass, in Yaounde on March 19. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A nun waits on the stands of the Amadou Ahidjo stadium for the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI to celebrates a mass, in Yaounde, Cameroon, Thursday, March 19. (Andrew Medichini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Faithful rejoice as the sun bursts through dark thunder clouds during a heavy rain storm moments after Pope Benedict XVI arrived at the basilica to celebrate Vespers in Cameroon's capital Yaounde on March 18. (Finbarr O'reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Vespers at the Mary Queen of Apostles Basilica in Yaounde, Cameroon on March 18. (Rebecca Blackwell / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Pope Benedict XVI leaves on his popemobile after he celebrated a Vesper ceremony in the "Marie Reigne des Apotres", basilica, in Yaounde , Cameroon on March 18. (Andrew Medichini / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Crowds cheer and wave to Pope Benedict XVI as he leaves the airport in Yaounde, Cameroon Tuesday, March 17. The pope arrived to begin his first trip to Africa, the fastest-growing region for the Roman Catholic church. (Rebecca Blackwell / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. An African clergyman kisses Pope Benedict XVI's ring at the airport in Yaounde, Cameroon Tuesday, March 17. (Rebecca Blackwell / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A Cameroonian woman holds up a cloth patterned with portraits of Pope Benedict XVI and Cameroonian President Paul Biya at the airport in Yaounde on Tuesday, March 17. (Issouf Sanogo / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Pope Benedict XVI waves to the crowd upon his arrival at Younde airport on March 17, 2009, on the first day of a six-day visit in Africa. Pope Benedict XVI brought the "Christian message of hope" to Africa as he arrived in Cameroon today at the start of his first visit to the world's poorest continent as pontiff. AFP PHOTO/ CHRISTOPHE SIMON (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images) (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Sister Virginia Amena grins moments after Pope Benedict XVI shook her hand and gave her his blessing upon his arrival in Cameroon's capital Yaounde, Tuesday, March 17. The pope is seeking support for Africa during the world economic crisis, hoping to encourage peace and help tackle corruption. • Full story: NBC's George Lewis profiles Pfc. Joseph Anzack Jr., one of the missing soldiers who was killed by insurgents in Iraq. (Finbarr O'reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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