LUANDA, Angola – In Africa, some Roman Catholic priests have children and nuns counsel patients to use condoms against the scourge of AIDS. The faithful consult medicine men even though the church condemns that as witchcraft.
As Pope Benedict XVI makes his first pilgrimage this week to the continent that has the world's fastest-growing congregation of Catholics, the church faces enormous challenges despite its growing presence here.
The number of Catholics has ballooned from fewer than 2 million to nearly 140 million over the last century, while Africa also is ordaining priests at a higher rate than anywhere else. Ordinations rose by nearly 30 percent in 2007, the Vatican reported last month.
The pope travels Friday to Angola, where Portuguese missionaries baptized Africa's first Catholic convert in 1491. He says he hopes to inspire the faithful to work for social justice and fight the hunger and disease that afflict millions on the continent.
But since stepping off the papal plane Tuesday, attention has focused on the pope's statements rejecting condoms as a way to stop the spread of HIV in Africa. Three-quarters of all AIDS deaths worldwide in 2007 were in sub-Saharan Africa, where some 22 million people are infected with HIV, according to UNAIDS.
Luzia Gaspar, a Catholic nurse who trains midwives outside Luanda, prays the pope will reconsider.
"It's very dangerous. If we do not counsel people to use condoms we are condemning them to almost certain death," she said.
This dissident view is held among Catholics throughout Africa, including in the church hierarchy. Some say how the debate is resolved could be the key to controlling AIDS in Africa, and to the continued credibility of the church.
To protest the ban on condoms, 14 South African nuns who work with AIDS victims formed Sisters for Justice. And the bishops of southern Africa years ago declared condoms should be used by married couples if one spouse is HIV positive.
South African Bishop Kevin Dowling, who says he is heartbroken by the sight of dying women with emaciated babies among the victims, says people at risk of spreading HIV "should use a condom in order to prevent the transmission of potential death to another."
But in his first public pronouncement on condoms, Benedict gave no quarter. "You can't resolve it (the AIDS crisis) with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem" by promoting promiscuity, he told reporters on his chartered jet as he headed from Rome to Africa.
Told about that, nurse Gaspar said: "I pray for God and for the pope that this doctrine must change."
Some Catholic priests in Africa also ignore the church requirement that they take a vow of celibacy.
"Priests having affairs is rampant in the church" in South Africa, said Velesiwe Mkwanazi, a former Catholic lay leader who co-founded Women Ordination South Africa and says she knows two priests with children.
"Parishioners blame women, say we seduce the priests, but we are brought up to respect and honor men, and women can't say no to a priest who is held up to us as a fount of knowledge in daily communication with God," she said.
Co-founder Dina Cormick said priests who are caught having affairs are sent on retreats or moved to other parishes while nuns caught in sexual liaisons with priests are forced to leave their orders.
The Rev. Rodney Moss, the head of St. Augustine College, South Africa's only Catholic university, would say only that "a lot more effort is being put into dealing with problems of sexuality in seminaries. When I was a seminarian it was hardly addressed, but now there is quite a lot said about it."
The Rev. Simangaliso Mkhatshwa, a priest who is also a leading member of South Africa's governing African National Congress, said the church needs to have an open discussion about celibacy.
"It's an issue that needs to be more openly discussed among lay people, priests among themselves, the bishops in this country, but also internationally," he said. "Because some of these policies probably were designed for a particular era and it does happen from time to time we have to ask whether some of these policies are still relevant."
Others believe the church needs to go further.
"If we want to stop the scandal of ... children (born out of wedlock to priests), then we must change the thinking," said Mike Auret, who worked for Zimbabwe's Catholic Bishops' Conference for more than 20 years. "Lay Catholic leaders have been talking about marriage for priests for years."
In one scandal, Zimbabwean Archbishop Pius Ncube admitted having an affair with a married parishioner and stepped down in 2007 after state media broadcast images purporting to show him undressing and naked in his bedroom with a woman.
The Vatican said Ncube's resignation was accepted under a church law that says a bishop should retire if he is ill or if "some other grave reason" makes him unsuitable for office. The statement did not address the reputed affair; Ncube now works in a rural parish.
Benedict indirectly addressed the scandals in African churches while meeting Wednesday with the bishops of Cameroon.
"I urge you, then, to be especially vigilant regarding the faithfulness of priests and consecrated persons to the commitments made at their ordination or entry into religious life," the pope said. "The authenticity of their witness requires that there be no dichotomy between what they teach and the way they live each day."
Noting the high numbers of young men seeking to be ordained, the pontiff said "serious discernment" was needed to ensure future priests are "mature and balanced men."
Four years into his papacy, the 81-year-old pontiff chose to visit Africa now ahead of a worldwide meeting of the continent's bishops at the Vatican in October.
In Cameroon on Wednesday, Benedict also urged the nation's bishops to defend the traditional African family from the dangers of modernity and secularization.
But Mkhatshwa, the South African priest, is more concerned about the pope addressing "training the clergy to minister to the people of today ... to really be getting actively involved in issues of poverty, unemployment, disease, economic and political justice."