Vatican critics ‘stung’ Pope into concession on condoms
The Pope won praise from around the world yesterday for relaxing the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to the use of condoms in the fight against Aids.
Activists on the front line of the battle against the killer disease joined liberal Catholics in lauding the pontiff’s shift of the Vatican’s long-held stance on contraceptives.
“This is a significant and positive step forward taken by the Vatican today,” said Michel Sidibe, the director of the UN’s Aids programme in Geneva. “This move recognises that responsible sexual behaviour and the use of condoms have important roles in HIV prevention.”
Some Aids activists insisted, however, that the Pope’s statement did not go far enough. Caroline Nenguke at the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, where more than 1 in 10 of the population is HIV-positive, said: “It’s a step in the right direction but falls well below what the Church could do.
“The statement is a bit confusing because it says they can be used in certain circumstances, like male prostitutes, but that can lead to confusion. People could read this and say ‘that’s all right, I’m heterosexual so I don’t need to use a condom’.
Simon Wright, head of health and HIV at Save the Children, said: “Condoms remain the only effective tool for preventing HIV transmission and there has been too much misinformation and discouragement from religious leaders, which has resulted in young people getting infected unnecessarily.”
Pope Benedict XVI unveiled the Church’s new thinking in a book-length series of interviews with Peter Seewald, a German journalist, in which he suggested that condoms could be used by prostitutes, at least male ones.
The English, French and German versions of the book, Light of the World, to be released tomorrow, all used the example of male prostitutes to make the point. But Italian extracts published yesterday by the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano spoke of a female “prostituta”.
According to the English language version, posted on the website of the Catholic Truth Society, the book’s British publisher, the Pope said: “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralisation, 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 humanisation of sexuality.”
Although hugely significant, Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, insisted last night that the Pope’s statement “certainly cannot be defined as a revolutionary breakthrough”.
“The Pope considered an exceptional situation in which the exercise of sexuality represents a real risk to the lives of others,” the press office of the Holy See said. “In this case, the Pope does not morally justify the exercise of disordered sexuality, but believes that the use of condoms to reduce the risk of infection is a ‘first step on the road to a more human sexuality’, rather than not to use it and risk the lives of others.”
Jack Valero, co-ordinator of Catholic Voices, said the Pope had been “stung” by the backlash to comments he made while on the trip to Africa last year in which he suggested that condom use aggravated the spread of Aids.
Mr Valero said: “The Pope has probably been thinking since then about how to clarify what he said and explain better what he meant.”
In the Philippines, which is more than 80 per cent Catholic, Bishop Teodoro Bacani said yesterday that he had long taught that condoms might be acceptable in certain circumstances.
Marco Politi, a veteran Vatican analyst who coauthored a book on Pope John Paul II, said Pope Benedict’s position could open the door to wider Catholic approval of condom use.
“The example he has brought forward is just symbolic,” Mr Politi said. “If he opens the window then the moral theologians will say there can be a wife, or two partners where one partner has a very wide sexual life and the other partner can protect themselves.”
Peter Tatchell, the human rights campaigner who helped to co-ordinate the Protest the Pope campaign during the papap state visit to Britain earlier this year, called the new policy a “volte-face.” “Benedict seems to realise that his unrelenting, blanket opposition to condoms has damaged his own authority and that of the Church.”
Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice in the United States, said the Pope’s comments were “game-changing.”
But he added: “While we naturally agree that condoms should be available for male sex workers, we and millions of Catholics also think they should be available to everyone at risk of contracting or transmitting HIV – women as well as men.”
This article originally appeared in The Times.