Benedict XVI has said that if those with HIV use a condom with “the intention of reducing the risk of infection” it might be the “first step in the direction of a moralisation” of sexuality.
He made the comment in Light of the World, a book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald, which was published today.
Although Pope Benedict used the example of a male prostitute, the Vatican has clarified that his comments applied to both sexes.
In the book Mr Seewald asks the Pope about his statement on the way to Africa in March 2009 that condoms were not the solution to the Aids crisis.
Pope Benedict replies: “Someone had asked me why the Catholic Church adopts an unrealistic and ineffective position on Aids.
“At that point, I really felt that I was being provoked, because the Church does more than anyone else. And I stand by that claim. Because she is the only institution that assists people up close and concretely, with prevention, education, help, counsel, and accompaniment. And because she is second to none in treating so many Aids victims, especially children with Aids.
He continued: “In my remarks I was not making a general statement about the condom issue, but merely said, and this is what caused such great offense, that we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms. Much more needs to be done. We must stand close to the people, we must guide and help them; and we must do this both before and after they contract the disease.
“As a matter of fact, you know, people can get condoms when they want them anyway. But this just goes to show that condoms alone do not resolve the question itself. More needs to happen.
“Meanwhile, the secular realm itself has developed the so-called ABC Theory: Abstinence-Be Faithful-Condom, where the condom is understood only as a last resort, when the other two points fail to work. This means that the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalisation of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves.
“This is why the fight against the banalisation of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.”
He added: “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.”
Mr Seewald then asks the Pope whether he is saying that the Church is not opposed in principle to condoms.
The Pope answers: “She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that 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.”
Today Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi said the Pope’s comments on condoms applied to women and transsexuals, not just male prostitutes.
Fr Lombardi told reporters: “I personally asked the Pope if there was a serious, important problem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine. He told me no. The problem is this … It’s the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship.
“This is if you’re a woman, a man, or a transsexual. We’re at the same point,” Fr Lombardi said.
At the weekend Dr Janet Smith, a consultor to the Pontifical Council on the Family, said: “[The pope] says that the Church does not find condoms to be a ‘real or moral solution.’ That means the Church does not find condoms either to be moral or an effective way of fighting the transmission of HIV.
“As the Holy Father indicates in his fuller answer, the most effective portion of programmes designed to reduce the transmission of HIV are calls to abstinence and fidelity.
“The Holy Father, again, is saying that the intention to reduce the transmission of any infection is a ‘first step’ in a movement towards a more human way of living sexuality.”
Fr Joseph Fessio SJ, editor-in-chief of Ignatius Press and a former student of Benedict XVI, said: “It would be wrong to say, ‘Pope Approves Condoms’. He’s saying it’s immoral but in an individual case the use of a condom could be an awakening to someone that he’s got to be more conscious of his actions.”
Leading Vatican commentator John Allen said: “Pope Benedict XVI has signaled that in some limited cases, where the intent is to prevent the transmission of disease rather than to prevent pregnancy, the use of condoms might be morally justified.
“While that position is hardly new, in the sense that a large number of Catholic theologians and even a special Vatican commission requested by Benedict XVI have endorsed it, this is the first time the Pope himself has publicly espoused such a view.
“The comments do not yet rise to the level of official church teaching, but they do suggest that Benedict might be open to such a development.”
John Thavis, another distinguished Vatican commentator, said: “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.”
He added that “despite journalistic hyperventilation” the Pope’s comments do not signal a major shift in Vatican thinking on condoms.
“What the Pope has done is to raise the issue publicly,” he said, “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.”
In a statement issued on Sunday, translated from the Italian by the National Catholic Reporter, Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi said: “The Pope is not reforming or changing the teaching of the Church, but reaffirming it by placing it in the context of the value and the dignity of human sexuality as an expression of love and responsibility.
“At the same time, the Pope considers an exceptional situation in which the exercise of sexuality respresents a true risk to the life of another. In that case, the Pope does not morally justify the disordered exercise of sexuality, but holds that the use of a condom in order to diminish the threat of infection is ‘a first assumption of responsibility’, and ‘a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality’, rather than not using a condom and exposing the other person to a threat to their life.
“In that sense, the reasoning of the pope certainly cannot be defined as a revolutionary shift. Numerous moral theologians and authoritative ecclesiastical personalities have sustained, and still sustain, similar positions.
“Nevertheless, it’s true that until now they have not been heard with such clarity from the mouth of the pope, even if it’s in a colloquial rather than magisterial form.
“Benedict XVI therefore courageously gives us an important contribution of clarification and deepening on a question that has long been debated. It’s an original contribution, because on the one hand it remains faithful to moral principles and demonstrates lucidity in rejecting ‘faith in condoms’ as an illusory path; on the other hand, it shows a comprehensive and far-sighted vision, attentive to discovering the small steps – even if they’re only initial and still confused – of a humanity often spiritually and culturally impoverished, towards a more human and responsible exercise of sexuality.”