Pope confirms his approval of condom use against disease

Pope Benedict XVI with Peter Seewald, the author of a new book of interviews with him. Pope Benedict XVI with Peter Seewald, the author of a new book of interviews with him. (L’Osservatore Romano/ Reuters)
By Rachel Donadio and Laurie Goodstein
New York Times / November 24, 2010

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VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI clearly acknowledged yesterday that the need to prevent diseases like AIDS could outweigh the church’s long opposition to the use of condoms.

It was a significant and stunning personal pronouncement from the conservative pope after more than two decades of heated debate inside the Roman Catholic Church and condemnation by health workers who said that the church’s ban on prophylactics was morally indefensible during the AIDS crisis.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s spokesman, said that for Benedict, the use of condoms by people infected with HIV could be “the first step of responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk to the life of the person with whom there are relations.’’

“Whether it’s a man or woman or a transsexual,’’ he add ed.

Benedict did not endorse the general use of condoms or change official church teaching, which still opposes contraceptives, but his words ricocheted around the globe, greeted with anger from some conservative Catholics and enthusiasm from clerics and health workers in Africa, where the AIDS problem is worst. The pope also considers the continent to be a major area of growth for the church.

“We’re in a new world,’’ said the Rev. Jon Fuller, a Jesuit priest and a physician at the Center for HIV/AIDS Care and Research at Boston Medical Center. The pope is implicitly saying, he said, “that you cannot anymore raise the objection that any use of the condom is an intrinsic evil.’’

Catholic conservatives who believed Catholic teaching against contraception to be inviolable were reeling.

“This is really shaking things up big time,’’ said John M. Haas, the president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, who serves on the governing council of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life.

Haas, a moral theologian, said he had seen an embargoed copy of the new book in which the pope conceded there might be extreme cases in which there are grounds for the use of condoms.

“I told the publisher, ‘Don’t publish this; it’s going to create such a mess,’ ’’ he added.

In the book, “Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and The Signs Of The Times,’’ which was released yesterday, Benedict said that condoms were not “a real or moral solution,’’ but that in some cases they could be used as “a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.’’

But his words left room for ambiguity. In the book’s German and English editions, the text cited the example of a male prostitute, implying homosexual sex, in which a condom would not be a form of contraception. The church opposes contraception on the grounds that every sexual act should be open to procreation.

But questions emerged when the book’s Italian edition, excerpted by the Vatican newspaper Saturday, used the feminine form of prostitute.

Yesterday, Lombardi said the Italian translation was an error, but that the pope had specifically told him that the issue was not procreation but rather disease prevention, regardless of gender.

“I personally asked the pope if there was a serious, important problem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine,’’ said Lombardi. “He told me no.’’

Lombardi said that he had spoken directly with the pope at least twice since Sunday and that Benedict had personally approved a statement he released on the condom question, indicating how adamant the pope was.

Benedict’s papacy has suffered from frequent communications missteps. But this time, it appeared that the pope was sending an intentional message. Lombardi said that he had asked Benedict if he had recognized the risk in publishing a book of interviews in a complex media landscape where his words might be “misunderstood.’’

“The pope smiled,’’ Lombardi said.

Benedict’s comments on condoms seem in some ways to be a profound provocation, indicating that although he is not changing church doctrine, he is insisting that condoms can be a responsible option in preventing disease.

In the book, a wide-ranging series of interviews with German journalist Peter Seewald, the pope was responding to a question about a controversy last year, when, on his way to Africa, he said that condoms worsened the spread of AIDS. The disease, he added, could be prevented only by abstinence and responsibility. In expressing his views on the male prostitute scenario, Benedict showed himself to be at once strictly doctrinaire but never entirely predictable.

“What the pope said about the use of condoms to prevent illness certainly is significant and helps the comprehensive fight against AIDS in Africa,’’ said Mario Marazziti, the spokesman for the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic group in Rome that runs 40 AIDS clinics in 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

During the decades of debate about condoms, the chorus of voices from inside the church challenging its position had grown increasingly louder, especially in Africa.

Lisa Sowle Cahill, a professor of theology at Boston College, said the pope’s new openness about condoms was significant even if it did not change church teaching.

“I see it as a shift in attention, so that the politics of AIDS is larger on the radar screen than the politics of contraception, and to me that is a needed and appropriate shift,’’ she said.

She added the church had held firm against the use of condoms even to prevent AIDS, because the birth control issue took so much precedence politically.

Indeed, Haas could barely countenance Lombardi’s comments that broadened the debate to include women.

“I don’t think it’s a clarification; it’s a muddying of the waters,’’ he said. “My opinion is that the pope purposely chose a male prostitute to avoid that particular debate.’’

And if Benedict was in fact opening that debate?

“I think the pope’s wrong,’’ Haas added. top stories on Twitter

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