In the News 2009

Vatican Backtracks over Pope’s Condom Stance


The Vatican backtracked yesterday on the Pope’s rejection of condoms as a means of preventing Aids — a decision interpreted by some as a rare admission of papal fallibility.

On Tuesday he told reporters accompanying him on his trip to Africa that Aids was a “tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, and that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems”. Taken aback by outrage worldwide, the Holy See altered the Pope’s remark yesterday to read that condoms merely “risked” aggravating the problem.

The Vatican website published an edited text of the Pope’s comments the day after a question-and-answer session on his flight to Cameroon. It was a question from a French reporter that elicited an unqualified response about condoms.

By introducing the word “risks” the Vatican softened the message. The website at first also altered the Italian word the Pope used for condoms, from “preservativi” to “profilattici”.

It is not clear whether “preservatives” — the usual Italian term for condoms — was deemed too colloquial, or whether “prophylactics” was considered not simply more polite but more general, since it could be taken to encompass other forms of “safeguard against disease”. Subsequently the word was changed back to preservativi.

All Vatican press conferences are conducted in Italian, which the German-born Pope speaks fluently and which Vatican-accredited reporters are also expected to speak. Reporters who recorded the interview on the flight said the recordings showed that the Pope had used the word “preservativi” and not “profilattici”.

In addition he had not said that reliance on condoms “risked” aggravating the problem, as the amended version had it, but rather that it “even aggravated it” or, as some media translated the word, “increased” it.

In Cameroon Father Federico Lombardi, the papal spokesman, continued to defend the Pope’s remarks — in whatever form — saying that he was merely continuing the line taken by his predecessors. He said the Pope maintained that the distribution of condoms was “not in reality the best way” to tackle Aids.

L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, said in a front-page editorial that the media had reduced the Pope’s trip to just “one aspect”, the controversy over how to combat Aids.

The Pope’s speeches and homilies as released by the Vatican are usually regarded as sacrosanct. He is deemed to have delivered the officially released written version even if he does not do so for any reason, or if he omits parts of the written text.

Jon O’Brien, president of the US-based Catholics for Choice, welcomed the change as an admission that the Pope was not infallible on the issue and was willing to acknowledge his mistakes. “The Pope has now admitted that he is unsure as to whether condoms will help alleviate the spread of HIV,” he said. “Where there is doubt there is freedom and Catholics can now make up their own minds as to whether they can use them or not. Indeed, the vast majority of Catholics have already made this call and use condoms to protect themselves and their partners against sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

“We call on the Pope to revisit the teachings on condoms with a view to lifting the ban at the earliest possible moment. In his review, we want him to include experts who are unequivocal that condoms do in fact help prevent the spread of HIV.”

Mr O’Brien added: “It took the church hierarchy 359 years to stop continuing the line taken by their predecessors on Galileo. We hope that this error does not take so long to change.”

This article originally appeared in The Times (London).

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