The Catholic church of Lucerne has launched a controversial Aids prevention campaign which includes the distribution of condoms.
At the same time, a Catholic mission is hosting a road show that educates young people about Aids in Africa.
From Monday until Wednesday, a multimedia exhibition staged in a truck outside the main railway station illustrated the harsh reality of life in Uganda and in South Africa, where HIV and Aids are a severe problem.
Small rooms represented African huts, a classroom, a market and a clinic. An accompanying audio guide tells the story of two young people affected by Aids.
Flavio Moresino, responsible for Missio’s youth-related activities in German-speaking Switzerland, said that the exhibition had enjoyed a good response.
Fourteen school classes signed up to visit the exhibition in Lucerne. Over the next three weeks, the truck will travel to other parts of Switzerland.
“We are really very happy about it – the HIV/Aids situation in Africa has had quite an impression on the schoolchildren. This exhibition makes the problem more concrete and interesting for them,” Moresino told swissinfo.ch. He added that somebody in the world is infected with HIV every 12 seconds.
Love thy neighbour
The Catholic church of Lucerne set up a stand to coincide with the Aids truck’s stay in the city. As part of its campaign, the church produced 3,000 custom-wrapped condoms to distribute.
Reactions have been mixed, with criticism from other branches of the Swiss Catholic Church.
The condom packaging features a stylised skyline of the city’s Catholic churches under a rainbow-coloured spray of condoms. The motto reads: “Forgetfulness is contagious. Protect your neighbour as you would yourself.” The church’s URL is printed on the back.
“We want to discuss this problem with youths and other people and show that we are from this millennium and that they can talk about this openly with us – there are no taboos,” said Florian Flohr, spokesman for the Catholic church of the city of Lucerne.
Flohr told swissinfo.ch that he was impressed by the young people he had spoken to.
“They respect their partners and are conscious of the fact that they have to think about Aids when they have sexual relationships,” Flohr said.
He emphasised the fact that he and his colleagues had not simply been passing out condoms to everyone who walked by. As of midday on Tuesday, he estimated that about 150-200 condoms had been given away – but only after a conversation about the importance of safe sex.
Although the Roman Catholic Church is officially against the use of condoms, pastoral workers supporting the Lucerne campaign say that it is unethical to ignore them when addressing the danger of HIV.
Youth workers will continue to broach the subject in and around the parishes of Lucerne.
Reactions to the Aids campaigns – in particular the one involving free condoms – have been mixed. The diocese of Chur has expressed its dismay in the Swiss media.
"It sends the wrong signal," diocesan spokesman Christoph Casetti told Swiss television. He added, "From a medical point of view, I also think it's wrong because we know that condoms don't provide absolute protection."
Diocese of Basel spokesman Guiseppe Gracia told swissinfo.ch the bishopric had not yet formed an opinion but was planning to issue a formal statement soon.
“It’s not a condom distribution campaign – it’s an information campaign,” Gracia pointed out. He added that most of the people who had reacted negatively had only informed themselves through the media.
The story has been picked up by the Associated Press and appeared in international newspapers including the Boston Globe and the London-based Telegraph.
Around the train station, swissinfo.ch found the responses to be quite positive.
“I think it’s cool,” said 17-year-old Tatjana Jud. “It’s surprising,” added her friend Valerie Beschwanden, 19. Seventeen-year-old Stefan Rogenmoser said he didn’t know much about the campaigns, but that he would feel comfortable talking to a church group about sex and Aids.
Alda Beck, an older woman waiting for her train, also spoke well of the project.
“I find it good – young people have sex and need to protect themselves. It’s high time that the church did something like this.”
Contraception and the Catholic Church
The Catholic Church has always emphasised that the primary purpose of sex is procreation.
It is opposed to artificial contraception methods such as condoms, diaphragms and birth control pills. Yet so-called natural family planning, based on monitoring a woman’s monthly fertility cycle, is considered acceptable.
In the 1990s, Pope John Paul II stated that while married couples might have very good reasons for careful family planning, artificial interference was a violation of the church’s teachings.
In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI said that condoms were not the solution in preventing Aids. His comment that condom distribution might even exacerbate the problem attracted a considerable amount of flak.