Catholic churches in the central Swiss city of Lucerne have sparked controversy among believers with an AIDS awareness campaign that involves giving teenagers condoms bearing the slogan "protect thy neighbor as thyself."
The churches started handing out some of the 3,000 condoms Monday as part of an effort to engage young people, many of whom may be turned off by the Vatican's long-standing opposition to the use of condoms, said a spokesman.
"We needed something to appeal to people who wouldn't dream of talking to the church about that kind of issue," Florian Flohr told The Associated Press.
The campaign is targeted at teenagers as young as 14 and includes talks to school classes about the devastating effect that AIDS is having in Africa, he said. "It's not about promoting promiscuous activity at all. We're using the condoms to prompt people to think about HIV and AIDS."
Flohr said the campaign so far has drawn mostly positive reactions, but some Catholics have expressed concern.
Officials at the diocese of Basel, of which Lucerne is a part, didn't respond to requests for comment Monday, but a spokesman in the neighboring diocese of Chur was quoted by Swiss television as describing the condom campaign as "a mistake."
"It sends the wrong signal," Christoph Casetti told SF1 television. "From a medical point of view, I also think it's wrong because we know that condoms don't provide certain protection."
Asked Monday about the Lucerne campaign, a Vatican spokesman said he hadn't heard about it but recalled the church's position opposing artificial contraception and said the use of condoms doesn't correspond to it.
Although the Vatican has no specific policy concerning condoms and AIDS, the Catholic Church opposes their use as part of its overall teaching against artificial contraception. Pope Benedict XVI came out strongly against condom distribution last year, saying a moral attitude toward sex - sexual abstinence and marital fidelity - would help fight the spread of HIV.
Flohr said the Lucerne parishes felt the time had come for an open debate in the Catholic Church about condom use.
"We feel supported by various bishops around the world who have said that talking about AIDS without discussing condoms is unethical," he said, adding that this may not be a debate every believer would want to take part in. "People who are far removed from the church may need a different message than those who go to church every Sunday."