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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 26, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 48
Pope says condoms OK & or does he?
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Pope says condoms OK & or does he?

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Catholic officials were plunged into a new public relations crisis when the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano published excerpts from a new book in which Pope Benedict seems to say that condoms may be used in some circumstances.

The excerpt ran on November 20.

International news media ran with the story. Headlines all over the world screamed, 'Pope OKs use of condoms!'

HIV/AIDS activists for the most part congratulated the pope on his seemingly advanced views.

Meanwhile, church officials realized that that interpretation of the pope's remarks called into question hundreds of years of Catholic teaching, and quickly tried to spin the story to reconfirm Catholic doctrine.

The pope's remarks turned out to be a couple of paragraphs out of a two-page answer to a single question in a book-length interview by German reporter Peter Seewald. Seewald will publish the entire conversation with the pope under the title Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and the Signs of the Times.

Although L'Osservatore Romano is an official paper used by the Vatican as an outlet for its public statements, their editors unaccountably jumped the scheduled world release of Seewald's interview.

Even worse for the Vatican, the paper published just a piece - the most inflammatory piece at that - of a very dense and very nuanced response to a question on a very delicate subject.

In the passage in question, Seewald asked the pope about his statement to a reporter during his March 2009 trip to Africa that condoms are not a solution to the AIDS pandemic.

'People can get condoms when they want them anyway,' the pope told Seewald. 'But this just goes to show that condoms alone do not resolve the question itself. More needs to happen.'

So far so good, as far as church doctrine is concerned.

Then Benedict, who, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was the Vatican's chief of theology police before he was elected pope, decided to offer a theological elaboration.

He brought up a situation in which using a condom could be positive, even if it still involved an act the church considered immoral.

'There may be a basis in the case of some individuals,' the pope said, 'as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.'

Seewald followed this up with a question about whether the Church is 'actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms.'

Pope Benedict responded, '[The church] of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.'

While the pope's remarks do not necessarily lend themselves to the interpretation that he approved the use of condoms, that was the take-away of almost all the world press, and church spokespeople had to play catch-up.

The day after L'Osservatore Romano's article, Vatican spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi said that 'the reasoning of the pope certainly cannot be defined as a revolutionary turning point.'

He said that, instead, it offers an 'original contribution' and a 'far-sighted vision' of taking small steps to 'a more human and responsible exercise of sexuality.'

Fr. Joseph Fessio, editor-in-chief of Ignatius Press, which was publishing Seewald's interview with the pope, said the Benedict's comment on condoms is 'very carefully qualified.'

'It would be wrong to say, 'Pope Approves Condoms,' Fr. Fessio said. 'He's saying it's immoral, but in an individual case the use of a condom could be an awakening to someone that he's got to be more conscious of his actions.'

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver said the pope's aides should have been better prepared for the controversy over his remarks.

'One might reasonably expect the holy father's assistants to have an advance communications plan in place, and to involve bishops and Catholic media in a timely way to explain and defend the holy father's remarks,' he said.

Left out of the conversation is the glaring sexism and Euro-centrism of the pope's remarks.

The pope - at best - authorized condom use by Gay men who wished to avoid HIV infection. He said nothing at all about the church's longstanding opposition to condom use by straight couples.

In Europe and the U.S., the incidence of HIV infections is, in fact, highest among Gay men, although even there infection rates among women are increasing. But it is well known that in Africa, HIV/AIDS occurs mostly among straight people, and those most at risk for infection are straight women whose husbands contract HIV from prostitutes while they do contract work away from home. Neither church doctrine, nor the pope's 'original contribution,' offers any recourse whatsoever to them.

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