VATICAN CITY – Critics of the Catholic Church's social teachings are trying to intimidate Pope Benedict XVI into silence, the Vatican charged Friday in responding to attacks on the pontiff's remarks about AIDS and condom use.
In a strongly worded statement, the Vatican defended the pope's view that condoms aren't the answer to Africa's AIDS epidemic and could make it worse. On his way to Africa last month, he said the best strategy is the church's effort to promote sexual responsibility through abstinence and monogamy.
France, Germany, the United Nations' AIDS-fighting agency and the British medical journal The Lancet called the remarks irresponsible and dangerous. The Belgian parliament passed a resolution calling them "unacceptable" and demanded Belgium's government officially protest.
Belgium's ambassador to the Holy See lodged the formal protest Wednesday, prompting the Vatican Secretariat to issue its tough statement denouncing the Belgian vote.
The Vatican deplored "the fact that a parliamentary assembly should have thought it appropriate to criticize the Holy Father on the basis of an isolated extract from an interview, separated from its context."
It said Benedict's remarks to reporters had been "used by some groups with a clear intent to intimidate, as if to dissuade the pope from expressing himself on certain themes of obvious moral relevance and from teaching the church's doctrine."
The Vatican said the criticism of the pontiff was followed by an "unprecedented media campaign" in Europe extolling the value of condoms in fighting AIDS while ignoring Benedict's message about the need for responsible sexuality and to care for those suffering from AIDS.
The statement was the latest sign of the Vatican's increasing defensiveness and frustration as it tries to get Benedict's message out. It follows a maelstrom of criticism — including from within the church itself — after the pope lifted the excommunication of a bishop who denied the Holocaust.
Vatican officials said they acted so forcefully this time because the Belgian criticism required a formal, diplomatic response.
"The Vatican is responding to this protest in a measured and balanced way, but also firmly and clearly," said a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. "We are making it clear that the pope and the church won't be intimidated by these criticisms or by media campaigns and will continue to staunchly support Catholic positions on moral issues."
The Belgian resolution, which passed April 2, said Benedict's comments ran against numerous international declarations and actions taken by the U.N. and groups fighting AIDS and other transmittable diseases. It called the remarks "unacceptable" and said the Belgian government didn't share them.
The Rev. John Wauck, professor of literature at the Pontifical Santa Croce University in Rome, said the Vatican's response was diplomatically appropriate and was actually restrained in that it didn't highlight the enormous work that the Catholic Church undertakes in caring for AIDS sufferers.
"Sending a package of prophylactics signifies a lot less in terms of self-giving in comparison to someone who has left their country and dedicates their lives to caring for people sick with AIDS," Wauck said.
He noted much of the criticism came not from Africa but from the West. Africans "weren't up in arms about what the pope was saying. The people who were up in arms are in Brussels," he said.
The Roman Catholic Church opposes the use of condoms as part of its overall teaching against contraception. It advocates sexual abstinence and sexual faithfulness between husband and wife as the best ways to combat the spread of HIV.
While some churchmen have said condoms are a "lesser evil" in combatting the spread of AIDS, others say condoms can increase the scourge by providing a false sense of security.
The Vatican said it was consoled that Africans and some members of the scientific community had appreciated the pontiff's remarks.
The Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, ran an article Friday summarizing reports in mainstream Western newspapers quoting experts who have questioned the efficacy of condoms alone in fighting AIDS.
Wauck cited those reports in saying the criticism of the pope was scientifically uninformed.
"I don't think it necessarily comes from hostility, but what you got was very instinctive reactions based on presuppositions that turn out not to be the case," he said.