Popes eases stance on condoms and AIDS prevention

November 23, 2010

SOURCE: The Guardian

Pope Benedict XVI says that condom use is acceptable in certain cases, notably to reduce the risk of HIV infection, in a book due out Tuesday, apparently softening his once hardline stance.


UN Photo/Jenny Rockett

A promising shift

In a series of interviews published in his native language German, the 83-year-old Benedict is asked whether "the Catholic Church is not fundamentally against the use of condoms."

"It of course does not see it as a real and moral solution," the pope replies.

"In certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, it can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality," said the head of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics.

Following the leaking of differently translated passages of the book, these comments were widely reported in the press and generated intense controversy. According to the German original and the English translation, Benedict said the use of a condom by an HIV-positive male prostitute could be a good thing, in that would represent a first step towards an assumption of responsibility; in the Italian version, however, the word for a female prostitute was used.

Several commentators, particularly conservative ones, pounced on the pope's unusual example to claim he was not signalling a change in his church's opposition to artificial contraception. By referring in the original to homosexual sex, in which condoms are not used for contraceptive purposes, it was argued, he was maintaining the ban on their use in heterosexual relations.

Yet the Vatican has since broadened the scope of the pope's remarks, implying that they refer to men as well as women, apparently opening the way for the widespread use of condoms for Aids prevention by Roman Catholics in Africa and other parts of the world blighted by the disease.

At a press conference in the Vatican to mark the launch of the book, the pope's spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, explained that he had raised this issue with the pope on Sunday.

"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.'"

Lombardi said the key point was: "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 ... This is if you're a woman, a man, or a transsexual."

A mixed message: commentsfor AIDS prevention, not contraception

As several experts have noted, the book, Light of the World, by German journalist Peter Seewald, cannot alter doctrine. But Father Lombardi's comments signalled that the pope approved of condom use as a lesser evil where there was a risk of HIV contagion.

The Catholic ban on the use of condoms, or any other device, for purely contraceptive purposes remains. One of the pope's most senior officials, Cardinal Rino Fisichella, told the press conference it was "intrinsically an evil".

What remains to be seen, however, is whether the Catholic church will be able to sustain a meaningful distinction between the dual uses of the condom. Benedict's comments do not detract from his insistence that abstinence and fidelity are more important in fighting Aids.