Confusion over Pope’s condom views after he says they are acceptable in ‘certain cases’
In a book to be published this week, Benedict XVI said there could be “justified individual cases” in which condoms could be used, softening Rome’s blanket ban on contraception, one of the most controversial issues facing the Church.
“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,” the head of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics said, giving as an example a male prostitute having sex with a client.
But he gave no guidance on the long-standing moral and religious question of whether it would be permissible for a married couple, in which one partner is HIV positive, to use condoms in order to prevent the other partner from becoming infected.
Nor was it even clear whether the liberalisation applied only to male sex workers – the original German version of the book, as well as its French and English translations, quoted the Pope as referring to a male prostitute, but an excerpt in Italian in the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, referred to a female prostitute.
The United Nations’ agency on fighting Aids said that only four to 10 per cent of HIV infections are a result of sex between men, and there were no reliable statistics about how many infections might be prevented if male prostitutes routinely used condoms.
The fact that as recently as last year the Pope, at the start of a trip to Africa, said that condoms could “aggravate” the problem of Aids, only added to the confusion.
While the shift was welcomed by Aids campaigners around the world, some theologians said it threw the spotlight on confusion over the Church’s stance on condom use.
They said the ambiguity of the Pope’s declaration could be a Pandora’s Box, convincing ordinary Catholics that condom use was now permissible in a much wider range of circumstances.
“It will from now on be harder than ever to justify the idea that condoms may not be used by married couples with discordant HIV status,” said Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith, a British priest and leading moral theologian.
“The central point here is that such couples are not using condoms as a method of contraception, but rather as a means of preventing the virus spreading.”
He said that confusion on the question already existed in the Church and called for a “long overdue” statement from Rome.
The Vatican insisted yesterday that the use of condoms was only permissible in “exceptional” cases but did little to clarify the apparent volte-face.
“The pope considered an exceptional situation in which the exercise of sexuality is a real danger to the life of another,” said Father Federico Lombardi, his official spokesman.
Jonathan Bartley, the director of the theological think tank Ekklesia, said: “It is difficult to say where the application is. It doesn’t mark, at first reading, any shift in police from the Church but it might be that there is an indication that policy may change and maybe there is a softening there … a small crack.
“It will certainly stir up debate, there is no doubt about that, and the debate is very welcome.”
Caroline Nenguke of the Treatment Action Campaign, a South African advocacy group for people living with HIV, also said the Pope’s message was unclear and could be misinterpreted.
“(He said) that only male prostitutes should use condoms and (that) could make people in heterosexual relations think they are not allowed to (use) them,” she said. “The pope has a lot of followers — he’s an opinion leader and a world leader — and if he’s going to take on a message, especially a message of life and death, it has to be very clear.”
But Jon O’Brien, president of the US-based Catholics for Choice campaign, said that the confusion had been created by Vatican traditionalists attempting to “control and contain” the Pope’s message.
“There is no way they can spin this to say that this doesn’t mean anything, this is huge,” he said.
“There is the usual confusion and spin by the hardliners in the Vatican who really want to reel in the importance of this statement.”
Andy Burnham, the shadow education secretary and one of the UK’s highest-profile Catholic politicians, said: “The Church has had an unsustainable position on the use of condoms, particularly in Africa.
“If this is the first sign of a change I would welcome it.”
Michel Sidibé, executive director of the United nations agency UNAIDS, said his latest comments were a “significant and positive step forward”.
“This move recognises that responsible sexual behaviour and the use of condoms have important roles in HIV prevention,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The Telegraph.