‘Condom lesser of 2 evils’
VATICAN CITY—In a seismic shift on one of the most profound—and profoundly contentious—Roman Catholic teachings, Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday clearly acknowledged 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 the Church’s ban on prophylactics was morally indefensible during the AIDS crisis.
The Vatican said condoms were the lesser of two evils when used to curb the spread of AIDS, even if their use prevented a pregnancy.
The Vatican still holds that condom use is immoral and that Church doctrine forbidding artificial birth control remains unchanged. Still, the reassessment on condom use to help prevent disease carries profound significance, particularly in Africa where AIDS is rampant.
The position was an acknowledgment that the Church’s long-held anti-birth control stance against condoms doesn’t justify putting lives at risk.
The new stance was staked out as the Vatican explained Benedict’s comments on condoms and HIV in a book based on his interview with a German journalist.
Not only to men
The Vatican spokesperson, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters on Tuesday that he asked the Pope whether he intended his comments to apply only to men. Benedict replied that it really didn’t matter, the important thing was that the person took into consideration the life of another.
“I personally asked the Pope if there was a serious, important problem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine,” Lombardi said. “He told me no. The problem is this: … It’s the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship.”
“Whether it’s a man or woman or a transsexual,” Lombardi added.
Lombardi said the Pope didn’t use the technical terminology “lesser evil” in his comments because he wanted his words to be understood by the general public. Vatican officials, however, said that was what he meant.
“The contribution the Pope wanted to give is not a technical discussion with scientific language on moral problems,” Lombardi said. “This is not the job of a book of this type.”
‘A game changer’
In the book, the Pope reaffirms Vatican opposition to homosexual acts and artificial contraception, as well as the inviolability of marriage between man and woman.
But by broadening the condom comments to also apply to women, the Pope was saying that condom use is a lesser evil than passing HIV onto a partner, even when pregnancy is possible.
“We’re not just talking about an encounter between two men, which has little to do with procreation. We’re now introducing relationships that could lead to childbirth,” declared the Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit writer and editor.
“By acknowledging that condoms help prevent the spread of HIV between people in sexual relationships, the Pope has completely changed the Catholic discussion on condoms,” said Martin, a liberal-leaning author of books about spirituality and Catholic teaching.
“This is a game changer,” he said.
Though Benedict did not endorse the general use of condoms or change official Church teaching, his words ricocheted around the globe, greeted with anger from some conservative Catholics and enthusiasm from clerics and health workers in Africa. The Pope 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 Dr. John M. Haas, 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 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,” Benedict says 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.
Lost in translation
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, 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.
Lombardi said 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 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.
Lombardi praised Benedict for his “courage” in confronting the problem.
“He did it because he believed that it was a serious, important question in the world of today,” Lombardi said, adding that the Pope wanted to give his perspective on the need for greater humanized, responsible sexuality.
Helping fight AIDS
“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 spokesperson 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 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 HIV-positive and the other was not, the use of “appropriate” protection to prevent the spread of HIV was acceptable.
That notion had gained wider acceptance in the Church, as it became clear in 2004 when a priest from the conservative Opus Dei movement wrote an article that also supported the concept.
HIV cases falling
The latest development came on a day when UN officials announced that the number of new HIV cases has fallen significantly—thanks to condom use—and a US medical journal published a study showing that a daily pill could help prevent spread of the virus among gay men.
The groundbreaking shift would appear likely to restrain any public criticism from Catholic conservatives, who insisted that the Pope was merely reaffirming the Church’s moral teaching.
Conservatives have feared that a comment like this would give support to Catholics who want to challenge the Church’s ban on artificial contraception in an environment where they feel they are under siege from a secular, anti-Catholic culture.
Degrees of evil
Msgr. Jacques Suaudeau, an expert on the Vatican’s bioethics advisory board, said the Pope was articulating the theological idea that there are degrees of evil.
“Contraception is not the worst evil. The Church does not see it as good, but the Church does not see it as the worst,” he told the AP. “Abortion is far worse. Passing on HIV is criminal. That is absolute irresponsibility.” Reports from Associated Press and New York Times News Service