ROME, Italy — For the past month, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Catholic Church had changed its position on condom use.
In a recently released book, Pope Benedict XVI appears to condone the use of condoms in some specific cases, prompting angry debate among Catholic commentators over the real meaning of the pontiff's words.
There has been so much confusion that the Vatican has intervened twice to clarify the pope’s message: the first time, even before the book's official publication date; the second, just last week, when the world’s billion Catholics were preparing for Christmas.
So did the pope OK condoms and change Catholic doctrine? And if he didn't — as the Vatican's doctrinal office stated on Dec. 21 — what was all the fuss about? And finally, why can't the most powerful religious institution in the world get its message straight?
Prior to the current kerfuffle, Catholic doctrine was devastatingly clear: birth control (through condoms or other means) was not allowed. Pope Paul VI weighed in on the matter in 1968, reaffirming the church’s ban on any action “specifically intended to prevent procreation,” despite the opposition of hundreds of Catholic scholars and families he had consulted. To prevent AIDS, the church condones only faithfulness (for married couples) and abstinence (for everyone else).
Benedict has had a public relations problem since the early 1980s, when he served as the church’s top doctrinal officer and was dubbed “God’s Rottweiler.” Then, last summer, the 83-year-old pope decided to give a book-length interview to a long-time friend of his, German journalist Peter Seewald. Though Seewald is a fawning admirer of the pope, it was a real interview, with unscripted questions touching on difficult topics from the sex abuse scandal to the Williamson affair. The pope even discussed the possibility of resigning.
In the resulting book, “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times,” the pope answers a question about AIDS prevention by saying that in some cases, like that of a “male prostitute,” using a condom “can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, 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,” he adds, “it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.”
The church, “does not regard” condoms “as a real or moral solution” for the HIV epidemic, but, “in this case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”
It is clear in reading the passage (in full here, or here for a discussion of different possible translations), that this is no Copernican revolution of church doctrine. There is no justification of contraception or prostitution. The pope refers to a single, very limited case, though he seems to hint that there might be other similar instances.
Why the media storm, then? After all, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, quickly stressed that “the reasoning of the pope certainly cannot be defined as a revolutionary change.”
“Many moral theologians and authoritative ecclesiastical figures have supported and support” positions similar to the one expressed in the book, Lombardi said.
What he didn’t say is that these positions have been fiercely criticized by many Catholics, especially those who belong to the influential pro-life movement in the United States and the United Kingdom.
The complex theological debate can be crudely summarized: Are condoms, as contraceptives, intrinsically evil? Or are they just devices with the user’s intent determining whether their use is acceptable? The question has festered for years in pontifical universities and specialist magazines, but the pope took it to the front page.
In doing so, he seemed to support the latter camp. As Lombardi put it, such a position had not before been heard “with such clarity from the mouth of the pope.”
Thus the confusion from conservative Catholic commentators such as George Weigel, the biographer of Pope John Paul II, and the pope's own U.S. publisher, Joseph Fessio of Ignatius Press. American cardinal Leo Burke stated flatly that he didn't see any change in the pope's words.
Last week, the Vatican doctrinal office seemed to respond to the concerns of those pro-life activists by reiterating that the words of the pope “do not signify a change in Catholic moral teaching or in the pastoral practice of the church.”
However, it reaffirmed the pope's nuanced, albeit very narrow, concession. The note also re-kindled the polemics, which will probably take months to die out.
One should not expect from the Vatican more major announcements on the subject, at least in the near future.
But what might change is the approach of tens of thousands of Catholic aid workers around the world, especially in Africa: Caritas Internationalis, the global umbrella organization for Catholic charities, announced that it will consider, “in close consultation with the Holy See, whether there are implications for our work” in Pope Benedict's words.
Lombardi, in his statement, specifically opened the door for HIV prevention programs that allow for condom use as a last resort by citing the "ABC," or "Abstinence-Be Faithful-Condoms," approach that has had success in some African countries.