The Catholic Church is often pilloried, or worse, for opposing condoms. We are told that the Church irrationally clings to abstract dogmas while real people lose their lives to AIDS.

It’s time to go on offense. The Church has a life-giving answer to the AIDS epidemic. Condom-promoters are the ones who are clinging to a ridiculous, discredited dogma at the cost of innocent lives.

Look at Africa. Nearly every country on the continent has vigorously promoted condoms to stem the tide of the AIDS epidemic there. And every one of them has failed to stop the epidemic — or even slow it down, much.

One African nation — Uganda — on the other hand, has experienced the greatest decline in HIV prevalence of any country in the world, reports the Heritage Foundation.

Studies show that from 1991 to 2001, HIV infection rates in Uganda declined from about 15% to 5%.

“The Ugandan model has the most to teach the rest of the world,” says Edward Green, a senior research scientist at Harvard and author of Rethinking AIDS Prevention. “This policy should guide the development of programs in Africa and the Caribbean.”

Jeff Spieler, chief of the research division in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) population office, states, “It just happens to be where the evidence is pointing.”

The Ugandan model was to emphasize that abstaining from sex outside of marriage was the only effective way for most people to reduce exposure to AIDS. Social scientist Joe Loconte says that there are four lessons that Uganda taught the world, if it’s willing to learn them:

1. High-risk sexual behaviors can be discouraged and replaced by healthier lifestyles.

2. Abstinence and marital fidelity appear to be the most important factors in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS.

3. Condoms do not play the primary role in reducing HIV/AIDS transmission. Uganda’s program did offer condoms as a last resort, mostly for high-risk groups. Abstinence was exclusively promoted for young people — and it worked.

4. Religious organizations are key in the fight against AIDS.

And yet the prevailing opinion of many cultural elites continues to be that condoms are the answer.

It should be obvious why they’re wrong.

Imagine that roller coaster operators decided to remove all of the safety bars from their rides. Instead, they decided simply to post a notice that said: “Practice safe roller-coastering! Bring a belt and strap yourself into your seat. Warning: If you fail to, you may get hurt, or even die!”

What would happen? Kids would die. Parents would be outraged. No one would expect every teen out to have a good time at an amusement park to have enough forethought and self-restraint to turn back at the roller coaster’s turnstile and go procure a safety belt. If governments responded by giving out roller coaster safety belts at schools, parents wouldn’t be satisfied.

And yet, when it comes to “safe sex,” too many people are happy with the sign-at-the turnstile approach.

Teens live in a world where sex is promoted on television, in movies and in music. Yet, a worldwide epidemic of venereal diseases mean that sexual activity can make people sick, or, in the case of AIDS, kill them.

It makes no sense simply to tell teens to remember to use a condom. Teens are rarely responsible enough to make their beds every morning. Why do we expect that, in the heat of passion, after we have given our tacit approval to premarital sex, they will use a condom?

The more effective method is to start telling people that sex isn’t healthy — physically, morally or emotionally — outside of marriage to start with.

That’s what Uganda did. The nation’s AIDS epidemic turned the corner when its culture began delivering the same message from middle-school classrooms to churches to community seminars and in radio, print and television broadcasts. That message: Save sex for marriage, where it belongs. It’s folly to expect to have sex safely any other way in this day and age.

“The effect was to create what researchers call a ‘social vaccine’ against HIV,” wrote Joe Loconte, “a set of cultural values that encouraged more responsible sexual attitudes and behaviors.”

As a result, Uganda’s Demographic and Health Survey of 2000-2001 found that 93% of Ugandans changed their sexual behaviors to avoid AIDS.

Catholics shouldn’t be afraid to insist that abstinence is the right answer to the epidemic of venereal diseases worldwide. Ours is the only answer that saves lives.