Vatican broadens case for condoms to fight AIDS

November 24, 2010

licht 1Pope Benedict’s landmark acknowledgement that the use of condoms is sometimes morally justifiable to stop AIDS is valid not only for gay male prostitutes but for heterosexuals and transsexuals too, the Vatican said Tuesday.

The clarification, which some moral theologians called “groundbreaking,” was the latest step in what is already seen as a significant shift in Catholic Church policy.

(Photo: The pope’s book in German (r) and Italian (l) displayed at a Vatican news conference, November 23, 2010/Alessandro Bianchi)

It came at a news conference to launch the pope’s new book, “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Sign of the Times.”

In the book, a long interview with German Catholic journalist Peter Seewald, the pope made clear he was not changing the Catholic ban on contraception, but, using the example of a male prostitute, said there were cases where using a condom to avoid transmitting the HIV virus could be justified.

licht 2Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi made the clarification because the German, English and French versions of the book used the male article when referring to a prostitute, but the Italian version used the female form.

(Photo: Pope Benedict talks with German journalist Peter Seewald at the Vatican November 23, 2010/Osservatore Romano)

“I asked the pope personally if there was a serious distinction in the choice of male instead of female and he said ‘No’,” Lombardi said.

“The point is it (condom use) should be a first step towards responsibility in being aware of the risk of the life of the other person one has relations with,” he said.

“If it is a man, a woman or a transsexual who does it, we are always at the same point, which is the first step in responsibly avoiding passing on a grave risk to the other.”

Theologians, AIDS activists and liberal Catholics said the latest developments marked a highly significant, perhaps even historic, change in the Church’s attitude to condoms.

Lombardi appeared to take the debate beyond the confines of prostitution in the context of fighting the transmission of AIDS, although the church prefers measures such as abstinence.

popebook 3“The fact that an official Vatican spokesperson seems to be extending the possibility of use clearly is groundbreaking,” said Rev. John T. Pawlikowski, a professor of social ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

(Photo: Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi during a news conference on the pope’s new book at the Vatican November 23, 2010/Alessandro Bianchi)

“The real question is whether this papal statement will impact pastoral activity on the ground, particularly in AIDS-affected regions of the world,” he told Reuters.

The church had been saying for decades that condoms were not even part of the solution to fighting AIDS, even though no formal policy on this existed in a Vatican document.

The late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York famously branded the use of condoms to stop the spread of AIDS as “The Big Lie.”

“The Vatican’s acknowledgement that Pope Benedict’s acceptance of condom use to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections relates to everybody shows how significant the pope’s comments are,” said Jon O’Brien, president of the U.S.-based Catholics for Choice group.

licht 3In the book, the pope says the use of condoms could be seen as “a first step towards moralisation,” even though condoms are “not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection.”

(Photo: A priest reads the pope’s book in St. Peter Square at the Vatican November 23, 2010/Alessandro Bianchi)

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, a Vatican official who presented the book, said Catholics had to “respect” the pope’s words even though they were not made in an official papal pronouncement.

Through the book and Lombardi’s comments, the pope seemed to be giving a cautious, qualified endorsement of the “ABC principle” (Abstinence-Be faithful-Condom) espoused by many governments and health organizations in preventing AIDS.

“For the first time, the use of condoms in special circumstances was endorsed by the Vatican, and this is good news and a good beginning for us,” said Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organisation.

licht 4(Photo: Archbishop Rino Fisichella discusses the pope’s book at a news conference at the Vatican November 23, 2010/Alessandro Bianchi)

The International AIDS Society welcomed the pope’s comments as a “step in the right direction” but called on him to do more.  “… there is still a long way to go in convincing the Catholic Church that condom usage is key to the elimination of the HIV virus, which currently claims 2 million lives every year,” IAS President Elly Katabira said in Geneva.

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