(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.
Many Catholic theologians came to the same conclusion years ago and some priests in Africa privately advise this if the alternative is infection, for example to a woman whose HIV-positive husband demands sex.
But this is the first time a pope has publicly said it. The issue has been a minefield for popes and successive attempts to explain Church policy have backfired, as Benedict himself found out on a visit to Africa last year.