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Condom machine upsets Vatican

"We have crossed the Rubicon of shame and degradation," said the Vatican daily L'Osservatore Romano. The object of the attack is a condom vending machine which has appeared in the library of the Istituto Magistrale Gianni Rodari, a secondary school for intending teachers in Prato, near Florence - the first such machine in an Italian school.

The school's headteacher Luigi Nespoli had not expected to anger the Vatican. "I didn't even know I was the first to instal one of the machines. At the beginning of the year the ministry sent a lot of material on Aids prevention, and one initiative was the vending machine. I thought I was doing the most natural thing in the world by having one put in."

But contraceptives are a delicate subject in Italy, where the Vatican keeps a high profile in the debate on public morality. Two years ago Rosa Russo Lervolino, the then education minister and a staunch Catholic, banned the distribution in schools of a comic strip which advocated the use of condoms. She said it was vulgar.

More recently Marco Formentini, the federalist Lega Nord mayor of Milan, has been battling with Cardinal Monsignor Ersilio Tonino over the sale of cut-price condoms in outlets such as discos and bars popular with the young.

"These problems should be left to the family, even the constitution says that it is the parents' responsibility to educate. A local administration should not assume responsibilities which belong to the school, the family, and the Church," said the cardinal.

Perhaps the cardinal will be pleased to learn that the vending machine in the Istituto Magistrale Gianni Rodari, although generating interest and approval among the pupils, has not generated much in the way of sales - only seven packets in a month.

The problem, it seems, is the position. Sig. Nespoli chose the library instead of the more traditional toilets because he wanted to make people understand that contraception is not something dirty, to be hidden. The pupils, almost all of them are girls, agree, in principle. However, as one of them says: "Having the machine in the library, with everyone looking at you - it's embarrassing. "

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