Lively debate among Catholics interpreting pope’s condom remarks

November 24, 2010

papaPope Benedict’s surprising view that condoms can sometimes be used to fight AIDS has kindled a lively debate among Roman Catholic theologians and commentators about whether this amounts to a change in Church thinking.

His comments and a Vatican clarification that expanded on them seem to leave no doubt that Benedict has spoken with unprecedented frankness for a pontiff and shifted the focus a bit from the Church’s rejection of condoms to avoid disease.

(Photo: Pope Benedict at his weekly audience 24 November 2010/Alessia Pierdomenico)

But the format of his remarks — in a book of interviews with a German journalist rather than an official Vatican document — and some confusion over translations have opened a gap allowing divergent interpretations.

Conservative Catholic bloggers have reacted with dismay — one put the book title “Light of the World” over a cartoon of Pandora opening her box and letting the world’s evils escape.

“I love the Holy Father very much, he is a deeply holy man and has done a great deal for the Church. On this particular issue, I disagree with him,” wrote Rev. Tim Finigan on his blog The Hermeutic of Continuity. The pope’s U.S. publisher, Rev. Joseph Fessio, declared: “The pope did not ‘justify’ condom use in any circumstances. And Church teaching remains the same as it has always been — both before and after the pope’s statement.”

papa 2Those who have long argued for allowing condoms as a last resort welcomed the new approach. “The Vatican has been so critical of condoms that it has led some Catholics to think that condoms are somehow intrinsically evil, that there is no conceivable situation where they could be used morally,” said Rev. Thomas Reese,  senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center in Washington. “The pope’s new statement blasts that idea out of the water.”

(Photo: A woman holds a sign saying “The condom saves. Getting soaked makes you sick” during visit of Pope Benedict to  Barcelona, November 7, 2010/Gustau Nacarino)

Christian Terras, normally a sharp critic of Benedict in his dissident French Catholic magazine Golias, called the tone of the pope’s approach “more human and pastoral, closer to the people, less professorial and cerebral.”

Others heaped blame on L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican daily that broke the embargo on the book on Saturday.

The Vatican has never issued an official doctrine on condom use and AIDS. Its rejection of condoms stems from the encyclical Humanae Vitae that banned all forms of artifical birth control in 1968 and its teaching that sex must be reserved for married couples.

Moral theologians have argued for years that condom use to avoid transmitting the deadly virus could be condoned as a last resort under the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”

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