/ 12 May 2007

Chastity’s a hard sell for the pope in Brazil

Visiting Pope Benedict XVI’s pronouncements in favour of sexual abstinence and against abortion are falling on deaf ears in Brazil, whose government hands out free condoms to schoolboys as part of a drive to curb HIV/Aids and teenage pregnancy.

As Benedict blasted ”media that ridicule the sanctity of marriage and virginity before marriage”, Brazilian Secretary for Women’s Rights Nilcea Freire said chastity was ”an absolutely individual decision” but an ineffective bulwark against Aids.

”I have nothing for or against someone who wants to be chaste or someone who doesn’t want to be, but we cannot base our programme of prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and Aids by advocating chastity,” she told Agence France-Presse.

Meanwhile homosexuals and pro-choice Catholic women have staged scattered protests in major Brazilian cities against the pope’s visit, blasting the Vatican for influencing government social policies.

”Catholics have sex for pleasure, use condoms, support sexual diversity and don’t condemn women for having abortions. When will the Church hierarchy change?” asks a poster brandished by women’s groups outside cathedrals in Brazil’s main cities.

The Brazilian Association of Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transvestites and Transsexuals published an open letter on Wednesday saying ”religious convictions ”cannot influence government policies, much less be used to discriminate”.

The group is one of the organisers São Paulo’s annual Gay Pride parade, thought to be the world’s largest with about a million people taking part.

At a youth rally attended by at least 40 000 young people in São Paulo on Thursday evening, Benedict devoted a large part of his speech to defending marriage, premarital chastity and faithfulness between spouses, in a country with notably relaxed sexual mores.

”Marriage is an institution of natural law, which has been raised by Christ to the dignity of a sacrament,” he said. ”God calls you to respect one another when you fall in love and become engaged, since conjugal life [is] reserved by divine ordinance to married couples.”

On the ground in Brazil, however, the spread of HIV/Aids has been contained in the past decade through an aggressive campaign of distributing millions of free condoms, including to schools.

Several Brazilian studies show that the age of sexual initiation is dropping steadily, to a current average of 15 years.

A study this week found that 79% of young Catholics think the Church should not condemn premarital sex and 96% are in favour of the use of condoms.

Brazil has more than one third of the total number of people living with HIV in Latin America, according to the United Nations agency UNAids, which says on its website that ”Brazil’s response to Aids has benefited from consistently strong political support from the highest level of government.”

But Brazil’s fight against the pandemic — which has also helped reduce teenage pregnancy — has drawn fierce criticism from the Vatican.

What is more, under the United States’ foreign aid policy, funding is withheld from reproductive health organisations that do not advocate abstinence.

The conservative Benedict has also come under fire from Brazilian Health Minister Jose Gomes Temperao, who criticised the Vatican’s hardline stance on abortion, backed up by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva himself.

”You can’t impose the precepts and dogma of a particular religion on an entire society,” Temperao said, adding: ”Church and state have been separate in Brazil for centuries.”

The health minister has pointedly decided not to accompany the pope on a visit to a drug rehabilitation centre in the nearby town of Guaratingueta on Saturday, the São Paulo newspaper O Estado de São Paulo reported.

Lula, for his part, argues that while he opposes abortion personally, as Brazilian head of state he views it as a public health issue, because ”otherwise it leads to the death of many girls in this country”.

He lamented that teenage pregnancy keeps about 30% of 15-to 17-year-olds out of school, adding: ”I know cases of girls who had their uterus perforated by a knitting needle” during an abortion. ‒ Sapa-AFP