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.