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Lively debate among Catholics interpreting pope’s condom remarks

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.”

Vatican broadens case for condoms to fight AIDS

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.”

Guestview: Did the Pope “justify” condom use in some circumstances?

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Father Joseph Fessio, S.J. is founder and editor of San Francisco-based Ignatius Press, the North American publisher of “Light of the World.”

popebook 1By Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.

Did the Pope “justify” condom use in some circumstances?

No. And there was absolutely no change in Church teaching either. Not only because an interview by the Pope does not constitute Church teaching, but because nothing that he said differs from previous Church teaching. (Photo: Pope Benedict with his new book, 23 November 2010/Osservatore Romano)

Then why all the headlines saying that he “approves” or “permits” or “justifies” condom use in certain cases?

Pope words on condoms bolster AIDS fight in Africa

pope lichtPope Benedict’s qualified backing of condom use to help prevent AIDS marks a small breakthrough for efforts to fight the scourge in Africa, giving health workers and clergy more scope to broach a still-taboo subject.

News of the pontiff’s comments in a book came days before a U.N. report on Tuesday showed that even Africa was making inroads into the epidemic, with a fall in infection rates over the past decade coinciding with greater availability of condoms. (Photo: Pope Benedict with book, 23 Nov 2010/Osservatore Romano)

“It does open the opportunity for discussion,” Paul De Lay, Deputy Executive Director of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) said of the pope’s statement, citing past confusion among many African Catholics over the Church’s approach to AIDS.

Pope says in new book he would resign if incapacitated

pope nods (Photo: Pope Benedict nods off during Mass in Malta April 18, 2010/Darrin Zammit Lupi)

Pope Benedict says in a new book that he would not hesitate to become the first pontiff to resign willingly in more than 700 years if he felt himself no longer able, “physically, psychologically and spiritually,” to lead the Church.

With startling candor, the 83-year-old Benedict floats the possibility of something Catholic Church officials do not like to talk about because it could open a doctrinal can of worms.

The book, called “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Sign of the Times,” has so far made headlines for the pope’s cautious opening to the use of condoms to stop AIDS.

Pope book breaks ice on Catholic view on condoms

condom 3 (Photo: Brazilian gays in Sao Paulo protest against the Catholic Church’s views on homosexuality, May 9, 2007. The posters read, “No more hypocrisy! Condoms and health”, and “Jesus loves gays”/Luludi-Agencia Luz)

The big surprise with Pope Benedict’s new book is not that he believes the Catholic Church can permit condom use to prevent the spread of AIDS in some circumstances, but that he took so long to say so.

Quotes from a new book of interviews with him made headlines around the world and some commentators went overboard by saying the Roman Catholic Church had made a sudden about-face on birth control and finally caught up with modern society.

A close reading of those quotes shows the pontiff not breaking from past teachings but thinking his way through the issue with logic dating back to the 13th century Saint Thomas Aquinas. He concludes that condom use, while still wrong, can be a lesser evil in certain circumstances.

Jewish leaders dismayed over Pius XII comments in pope book

piusJewish leaders reacted with dismay Sunday to comments in Pope Benedict’s new book that his wartime predecessor Pius was a “great, righteous” man who “saved more Jews than anyone else.”

Many Jews accuse Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, of having turned a blind eye to the Holocaust. The Vatican says he worked quietly behind the scenes because speaking out would have prompted Nazi reprisals against Catholics and Jews in Europe.

In his book to be published Tuesday, called “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Sign of the Times,” the German pope says Pius did what he could and did not protest more clearly because he feared the consequences.

Grammar experts needed for pope comment on condoms

ossrom luce002Male prostitutes? Did Pope Benedict actually say that only male prostitutes can use condoms to avoid transmitting the HIV virus? Why did he limit this unsuspected flexibility only to men?

Well, it’s not actually clear from the new book Light of the World, where this statement appears, that he is only talking about male prostitutes. In fact, the Vatican’s own daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, has him granting this conditional dispensation to female prostitutes. And his spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi has made a statement that supposedly clarified the pope’s comments but skirted around the gender isssue altogether. (Image: L’Osservatore Romano of 21 November 2010 with front-page mention of pope’s book — Luce del Mondo in Italian — at lower left. Interview excerpts were on the back page)

The problem is that the pope gave the interview in his native German, which is not 100% clear on this issue. The key phrase about condom use reads in the English translation: “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be the first step in the direction of a moralisation.”

Selected quotes from new book by Pope Benedict

pope massHere are some quotes from the English translation of Pope Benedict’s new book, “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Sign of the Times”. The book, in question and answer format with the German Catholic journalist Peter Seewald, is due to be published on Tuesday in several languages. (Photo: Pope Benedict at Mass at the Vatican November 21, 2010./Tony Gentile)

On condoms to fight the spread of AIDS:

“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.”

Jewish group urges pope to shut Holocaust denier Williamson out again

williamsonA Holocaust survivors group urged Pope Benedict on Saturday to ban an arch-traditionalist bishop from the Catholic Church because he hired a lawyer close to neo-Nazi groups to defend him in court in Germany. Bishop Richard Williamson, one of four rebel bishops re-admitted to the Church in January 2009, recently hired a far-right lawyer to conduct his appeal against a 12,000 euro fine imposed last year for denying the Holocaust.

His ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), which is now negotiating its return to the Church with Vatican officials, also threatened to expel Williamson from its ranks if he did not distance himself from the lawyer. (Photo: Bishop Richard Williamson, February 28, 2007/Jens Falk)

Williamson’s re-admission to the Church only days after he denied the Holocaust on Swedish television sparked protests across Europe and created major problems for Pope Benedict, especially with Jewish groups outraged by the move.