VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI (search) urged African bishops Friday to keep up their fight against AIDS, reiterating church teaching that abstinence is the only "fail-safe" way to prevent the spread of the virus.
Benedict met with the bishops from South Africa (search), Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia and Lesotho, all of whom were making a periodic visit to the Vatican.
"It is of great concern that the fabric of African life, its very source of hope and stability, is threatened by divorce, abortion, prostitution, human trafficking and a contraceptive mentality, all of which contribute to a breakdown in sexual morality," Benedict said.
The pope said he shared the bishops' concern about the devastation caused by AIDS (search) and that he prayed for "all those whose lives have been shattered by this cruel epidemic."
Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for more than 60 percent of the 40 million people infected with HIV worldwide. In March, a U.N. study predicted that more than 80 million Africans may die from AIDS by 2025 and infections could soar to 90 million — or more than 10 percent of the continent's population — if more is not done to expand prevention programs and offer better access to drugs that can control the virus.
South Africa has the highest number of HIV-infected people in the world, and an estimated 600-1,000 people die of AIDS there every day.
"I urge you to continue your efforts to fight this virus which not only kills but seriously threatens the economic and social stability of the continent," Benedict said.
The Vatican's opposition to condoms has been criticized by those who advocate condom use as a way to help combat the spread of the HIV virus. However, several prelates have suggested that using condoms that could prevent a death may be the lesser of evils.
The pope did not directly touch on that debate in his remarks.
He did say that "the Catholic Church has always been at the forefront both in prevention and in treatment of this illness" and that "the traditional teaching of the church has proven to be the only fail-safe way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS."
For that reason, he said, fidelity in marriage "and the safeguard which chastity gives" must always be presented to the faithful, especially to the young.