Intrepid young activists push condoms at World Youth Day

August 16, 2011

(RNS) Sending a small band of young people to talk about condoms at orld Youth Day, the triennial Catholic jamboree that opens in Madrid on uesday (Aug. 16), sounds like penance, if not a kind of martyrdom.

The six-day event is expected to draw close to 1 million young ilgrims, as well as thousands of priests, nuns and brothers, some 800 ishops and cardinals, and Pope Benedict XVI himself, who will lead a uge outdoor Mass on Sunday.

Those are daunting numbers compared with 30 young activists who are aking their "Condoms4Life" campaign to the streets of the Spanish apital this week. Authorities in Madrid weeks ago barred bus ads and illboards for the effort.

But Jon O'Brien, head of Catholics for Choice, the Washington-based bortion rights lobby that organized the campaign, sounds anything but rim.

That's because last year Benedict conceded in an interview that in pecial cases -- such as prostitutes trying to prevent HIV infection -- ondoms could be justified under Catholic ethical thinking.

"We're not pretending for a moment that he (Benedict) gave a liberal iew on sexuality or anything else," he added. "But he did say condoms an prevent the spread of AIDS."

The Vatican might cringe at such characterizations, and the pope imself voiced exasperation with the media focus on his words on the opic.

Yet in a book-length interview released in 2010, Benedict clearly e-framed the Vatican's position on condoms when he said that if condoms re not "a real or moral solution ... in this or that case, there can be onetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first tep in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living exuality."

After a statement like that, Condoms4Life organizer Marissa Valeri aid, there's no way the hierarchy can try and put "the genie back in he bottle."

Benedict's carefully worded statement was enough to inspire this ear's theme for CFC's Condoms4Life project, and a far different one han its initial tagline a decade ago: "Banning condoms kills."

"Thank you, Pope Benedict, for acknowledging that condoms save ives," read the English- and Spanish-language advertisements that CFC's oung campaigners will spread around the Spanish capital this week.

The Vatican is not about to endorse such an expansive view of the ope's statements, and is unlikely to directly engage the Condoms4Life essage.

"It seems to me that before every papal trip there are emonstrations by people who have a different opinion and use the ccasion to express their problems or concerns," said the Vatican's top pokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, in a pre-trip briefing on Aug. 2. "It's part of life in a democratic country."

O'Brien said the 30 young activists hail from around the world -- oland, the Philippines, the U.S., Uganda, Bulgaria, Ireland and lsewhere. Some are Catholic, but some are not. Some are gay, others traight, and a few are HIV-positive, he said.

The young activists plan to spread their message using a variety of guerilla" tactics, such as putting up "cling" ads on walls and rojecting the images four stories high onto buildings. They will also istribute wristbands and use street theater.

O'Brien said the team does not distribute condoms -- "Condoms are eadily available in Spain," he said -- and that they will be careful ot to push their message at Masses or other sacred events.

He also said the youths are "prepared for every contingency" should hey face opposition, but added that has never happened before and he oesn't expect any pushback this time, beyond engaging in serious iscussions about Catholic teaching and contraceptive use.

Those could be interesting conversations. The kicker of the CFC ads eads: "Good Catholics Use Condoms." In fact, studies show that in estern countries, at least, the use of contraceptives is almost niversal among Catholics, even weekly Mass-goers.

So O'Brien has reasons for optimism, and even the censoring of the illboard and bus promos didn't turn out so badly.

"As a result of the ban, that ad has appeared all over Spain," 'Brien said, pointing to the extensive coverage in Spanish media. "Did he people of Spain see the ad? Certainly they did."

"People are not offended by it. And I don't think the people coming o World Youth Day will be offended by it."

In any case, the Vatican may have other things to worry about. Registration for World Youth Day was running well below initial xpectations, and a coalition of priests from Madrid's poorest parishes re protesting the festival's $85 million price tag, saying the money ould be used to help the poor and unemployed.

There's also the limited edition toilet paper being marketed by the panish company Ronova, which is producing rolls in gold and white -- he official Vatican colors -- with an "I love the Pope" logo across the ackaging. Ronova hopes people will use the rolls first as streamers to elcome the pope's motorcade.