Roman Catholic bishops in southern Africa have rejected the advice of their own AIDS office and condemned the use of condoms in the fight against HIV and AIDS.

The Southern Africa Bishops' Conference has issued a formal directive, known as a pastoral letter, telling Catholics not to depend on condoms to keep safe from AIDS. In line with mainstream Catholic teachings, the Bishops urge Catholics to abstain from premarital sex and stay faithful to their husbands and wives.

In their pastoral letter, the bishops condemn governments that promote the use of condoms. The conference president, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, told reporters condom use is eroding the moral fiber of African nations and encourages people to have extramarital sex.

In addition, the cardinal says, condoms do not guarantee protection against HIV and AIDS, and may even increase spread of the disease.

AIDS activists and public health experts have long touted condoms as one of the most effective weapons in the fight against HIV and AIDS. Last week, a prominent South African bishop urged the church to abandon its ban on the use of condoms. Bishop Kevin Dowling said drastic measures are needed to reduce the rate of HIV infection.

A draft document prepared by the church's AIDS office took a position similar to Bishop Dowling's. It said using condoms to curb spread of the virus is "the lesser of two evils."

The use of condoms was on the agenda of the week-long regional church leaders' annual meeting in Pretoria. Had the conference followed Bishop Dowling's advice, it would have veered sharply away from church policy. In the end, the bishops chose to stand by the directives from the Vatican.

The bishops' pastoral letter follows established church teachings, calling on Catholics to abstain from sexual activity before marriage and to be faithful to their spouses afterward.

The bishops' announcement came on the same day the South African government launched a newly modernized national AIDS helpline. The hotline is aimed at clearing up confusion and misinformation about HIV and AIDS. People can call a toll-free telephone number 24 hours a day to get advice and counseling on the disease in any of South Africa's 11 official languages.

There is no word yet on whether the Catholic Church's condom debate has prompted many calls.