Pope’s comments on condoms spark headlines

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict’s latest comments on condoms, made in a book to be released Tuesday, are already sparking headlines.

The short version is that the pope indicated that in some situations, use of condoms in AIDS prevention might be a morally justifiable act. At the same time, he repeated what he said in Africa last year, that condoms are not the answer to the worldwide AIDS pandemic.

In the question-and-answer book, “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times,” the pope repeated his argument that focusing exclusively on condoms damages human sexuality, making it “banal” and turning it into a kind of “drug.” But he went on to say that in specific single cases — he mentioned prostitutes — condom use may be justified as a first step toward taking moral responsibility for one’s actions.

Asked whether this means the church is not opposed in principle to the use of condoms, the pope replied that while condoms are not a “real or moral” solution to AIDS, their use can reveal an intention of reducing the risk of infection and of living sexuality in a more “human” way.

These are nuanced comments, and one should read the passage in full to gauge the pope’s position. The pope’s answer seems to invite follow-up questions. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the Vatican has never proclaimed a “ban” on condom use in AIDS prevention; on the contrary, some Vatican theologians and officials have argued that for married couples in which one partner is HIV-infected, use of condoms would be a moral responsibility.

Where Vatican officials appear to agree is that promotion of condoms as the only or best answer to AIDS carries grave risks, mainly by promoting the idea that condoms guarantee “safe sex.” In that sense, the pope said on his flight to Cameroon in 2009 that rather than solve the issue of HIV/AIDS, condoms “increase the problem.” He encouraged campaigns to promote responsible sexuality instead.

Despite journalistic hyperventilation, the pope’s latest comments do not signal a major new shift in Vatican thinking. Under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict — the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation began studying many years ago whether using condoms to prevent AIDS was morally licit in some specific cases, and sources said there were strong arguments in favor of condom use. A few years ago, a document on the subject was considered, but has been back-burnered indefinitely, according to sources.

What the pope has done is to raise the issue publicly, making clear that the church’s teaching against condoms as a form of birth control is different from its position on condom use in disease prevention.