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Growing African church often splits with pope

In Africa, some Roman Catholic priests have children, and nuns counsel patients to use condoms against the scourge of AIDS. The faithful even consult traditional medicine men.
Image: Priests prepare to give communion to the faithful
African priests prepare communion to the faithful during a special mass with Pope Benedict XVI at Amadou Ahidjo stadium, in Yaounde, Cameroon on Thursday.Rebecca Blackwell / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In Africa, some Roman Catholic priests have children and nuns counsel patients to use condoms against the scourge of AIDS. Faithful consult traditional medicine men even though the church condemns it as witchcraft.

As Pope Benedict XVI makes his first pilgrimage to the continent this week, the church faces enormous challenges. Yet the number of Catholics has ballooned in the last century from fewer than 2 million to nearly 140 million — making it the most fertile ground in the world for Catholicism.

Africa also is producing priests at a higher rate than anyone else, with ordinations rising by nearly 30 percent in 2007, the Vatican reported last month.

The pope arrives in Angola on Friday to pay tribute where Portuguese missionaries baptized the first Catholic convert in Africa in 1491. Benedict said he was traveling to Africa in hopes of inspiring faithful to work for social justice and fight the hunger and disease that afflict millions on the continent.

But since stepping off the papal plane on Tuesday, attention has focused on the Vatican's refusal to advocate condoms to help stop the spread of AIDS. Three-quarters of all AIDS deaths worldwide in 2007 were in sub-Saharan Africa, where some 22 million people are infected with HIV, according to UNAIDS.

Luzia Gaspar, a Catholic and nurse for 31 years who helps train traditional midwives outside Luanda, prays that the pope will reconsider.

Condom views 'dangerous'
"It's very dangerous. If we do not counsel people to use condoms we are condemning them to almost certain death," Gaspar said.

This dissident view is reflected throughout the Catholic church in Africa, including in the hierarchy. Some think how it is resolved could be the key to controlling AIDS in Africa, and to the continued credibility of the church.

A group of 14 South African nuns who work with AIDS victims formed Sisters for Justice to protest the ban on condoms. And the bishops of southern Africa years ago declared condoms should be used by married couples if one spouse is infected with the AIDS virus.

South African Bishop Kevin Dowling, who says he is sick to the heart of seeing dying women with emaciated babies among victims, goes further. When people choose not to follow the church teachings, he says, "they should use a condom in order to prevent the transmission of potential death to another."

In his first public pronouncement on condom use, Benedict gave no quarter. "You can't resolve it (the AIDS crisis) with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem" by promoting promiscuity, he told reporters on his chartered jet as he headed from Rome to Africa.

Told about that, Gaspar, the nurse, said: "I pray for God and for the pope that this doctrine must change."

Many priests in Africa are also ignoring the church ruling on celibacy, a paradox amid African cultures that consider men boys and unworthy of respect until they father a child.

"Priests having affairs is rampant in the church" in South Africa, says Velesiwe Mkwanazi, a former Catholic lay leader who co-founded Women Ordination South Africa and who knows two priests with children.

"Parishioners blame women, say we seduce the priests, but we are brought up to respect and honor men, and women can't say no to a priest who is held up to us as a fount of knowledge in daily communication with God," she said.

Celibacy reconsidered
Dina Cormick, a co-founder with Mkwanazi, says priests who are found out are sent on retreats or moved to other parishes while nuns caught having affairs with priests are forced to leave their order.

The Rev. Rodney Moss, the head of St. Augustine College, South Africa's only Catholic university, would say only that "a lot more effort is being put into dealing with problems of sexuality in seminaries. When I was a seminarian it was hardly addressed but now there is quite a lot said about it."

Simangaliso Mkhatshwa, a priest who is also a leading member of South Africa's governing African National Congress, said "it's an issue that needs to be more openly discussed among lay people, priests among themselves, the bishops in this country but also internationally because some of these policies probably were designed for a particular era and it does happen from time to time we have to ask whether some of these policies are still relevant."

Others, though, believe the Catholic church needs to go further.

"If we want to stop the scandal of priestly children then we must change the thinking," said Mike Auret, who was head of Zimbabwe's Catholic Bishops' Conference for more than 20 years. "Lay Catholic leaders have been talking about marriage for priests for years."

Priest in affair scandal
In one scandal, Zimbabwean Archbishop Pius Ncube confessed to having an affair with a married parishioner and stepped down in 2007 after state media broadcast images purporting to show him undressing and naked in his bedroom with a woman.

The Vatican said Ncube's resignation had been accepted under a church law that says a bishop should retire if he is ill or if "some other grave reason" makes him unsuitable for office. The statement did not address the affair accusations. Ncube now is working in a rural parish.

The scandal ended his pivotal role as a lonely voice condemning President Robert Mugabe, a Catholic accused of making destitute the once-rich nation and its population. Auret appealed to the Vatican to excommunicate Mugabe, but never got a response.

On Wednesday in Cameroon, Benedict urged the country's bishops to defend the traditional African family from the dangers of modernity and secularization.

But Mkhatshwa, the South African priest, is more concerned about the pope addressing "training the clergy to minister to the people of today ... to really be getting actively involved in issues of poverty, unemployment, disease, economic and political justice."