The U.S. Roman Catholic bishops, acknowledging that their teaching on sexual chastity falls on many deaf ears, gave church hospitals and agencies permission Thursday to provide information on condoms as a potential safeguard against AIDS.
The bishops made it clear in an AIDS statement issued in Washington that they were not advocating prophylactics. The church has long opposed any artificial birth control method, and during the current AIDS crisis Catholic officials have said that those who endorse condoms for unmarried people and homosexuals only encourage sexual promiscuity.
Yet the new policy marked the first time the American hierarchy has permitted Catholics to inform people who risk contracting the fatal disease that public health officials recommend the use of condoms--as long as the Catholic views on morality are emphasized first.
The statement on the "ominous presence of AIDS" said that the public health recommendations may be discussed at Catholic hospitals, which serve both Catholics and others, and in personal counseling with Catholic parishioners.
"They're not going to be able to put on an education program even in a Catholic school without getting into the subject," added Bill Ryan, a spokesman for the bishops in Washington.
The statement also frees Catholics to take part in community educational efforts that include information about condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, according to Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Carl A. Fisher.
"This will permit them to be involved," Fisher said. "We can say what the U.S. surgeon general says. . . . All we have to do is to make the proper qualifications about our Catholic position.
"I think that represents a monumental change," said Fisher, who is the bishop for the San Pedro region of the Los Angeles archdiocese.
The bishops will continue to oppose health clinics such as those recently established at two Los Angeles public schools. Separate guidelines sent to bishops contended that the school-based clinics engaged in "aggressive promotion of contraceptives" to teen-agers. They also alleged a "threat to parents' rights posed by clinic advocates' demands of 'confidentiality' for minors and the misuse of school officials' moral authority to present a confused message to youth about sexuality."
The carefully worded, 7,700-word statement, which underwent several drafts over nine months, was approved by the 48-member administrative committee of the U.S. Catholic Conference in November for release this month. It acknowledged that in a pluralistic society, not everyone agrees with the Catholic church's teaching on human sexuality.
"We recognize that public educational programs addressed to a wide audience will reflect the fact that some people will not act as they can and should; that they will not refrain from the type of sexual or drug abuse behavior which can transmit AIDS," the statement said.
AIDS--acquired immune deficiency syndrome--destroys the body's immune system, is fatal and is transmitted in blood products, through sexual contact or shared hypodermic needles.
Programs that include "accurate" information about condoms, the statement said, "should indicate that abstinence outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage as well as the avoidance of intravenous drug abuses are the only morally correct and medically sure ways to prevent the spread of AIDS."
Jesuit Father William J. Wood, executive director of the California Catholic Conference in Sacramento, said that the state's bishops have opposed public school education plans that seemed to recommend condom use "on the same level with abstinence and monogamous fidelity."
Wood said in a telephone interview that he thinks the U.S. bishops' statement "is going to get opposition from some Catholics. Almost anything you say in the area of sexuality runs the risk of being misinterpreted."
The statement said a Catholic health care professional should first advise a patient at risk of getting the disease, or one already exposed to the disease, "to lead a chaste life.
"If it is obvious that the person will not act without bringing harm to others," the statement continued, "then the traditional Catholic wisdom with regard to one's responsibility to avoid inflicting greater harm may be appropriately applied."
The statement's footnotes cite St. Thomas Aquinas and Pope Pius XII on tolerating certain evils to prevent greater harm.
Wood said that in counseling situations, "it is always generally understood that there are things you tolerate as you try to encourage people to grow in moral behavior." The difficulty, he said, is saying that in print without inviting misunderstanding.
The bishops' statement urged AIDS education programs "at every appropriate level" in Catholic schools and colleges, beginning in the fifth or sixth grade. Infection with AIDS "in and of itself" should not bar a student from attending Catholic schools or religious education programs, the statement said.
The bishops also denounced violence against AIDS victims and urged medical workers, funeral directors and landlords not to discriminate against them. They also opposed any attempt to enact quarantine legislation.