|After Condom Remarks, Vatican Confirms Shift |
Osservatore Romano, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Pope Benedict XVI with the journalist Peter Seewald, who wrote “Light of the World” based on six hours of interviews.
By RACHEL DONADIO and LAURIE GOODSTEIN
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 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 H.I.V. 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 added.
Though Benedict did not endorse the general use of condoms or change official church teaching — which still strongly opposes contraceptives — 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 H.I.V./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 Dr. 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.
Dr. Haas, a moral theologian, said he had seen an embargoed copy of a new book in which the pope conceded there might be extreme cases in which there were 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,” which was released on Tuesday, 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 on Saturday, used the feminine form of prostitute.
On Tuesday, Father Lombardi said that 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,” Father Lombardi said. “He told me no.” Father 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. Father Lombardi said 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,” Father 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, which is a wide-ranging series of interviews with the German journalist Peter Seewald, the pope was responding to a question about a controversy last year, when while 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 — words remarkable in themselves coming from a pope — 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.
When a committee of American bishops issued a document in 1987 arguing that public AIDS-prevention programs could include information on condoms, they were roundly criticized by several conservative American cardinals and by Vatican officials, including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, who was then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal office.
In 2001, the Southern African Bishops Conference issued a landmark pastoral letter, which said that in a case of a married couple in which one spouse was H.I.V.-positive and the other was not, the use of “appropriate” protection to prevent the spread of H.I.V. was acceptable.
“The church accepts that everyone has the right to defend one’s life against mortal danger,” said the letter, which the Vatican never repudiated.
That notion had gained wider acceptance in the church, as became clear in 2004 when a priest from the conservative Opus Dei movement wrote an article in the British publication The Tablet that also supported the concept.
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 that 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, Dr. Haas, of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, could barely countenance Father 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,” Dr. Haas added.
Rachel Donadio reported from Vatican City, and Laurie Goodstein from New York.