In a groundbreaking move, Pope Benedict XVI said yesterday that the use of condoms can be justified in some cases. He cited as an example male prostitutes seeking to prevent the spread of HIV, although some commentators interpreted his words as applying to all occasions where a condom is used to stop infection.
The pontiff made his comments in a book-length interview with the German journalist Peter Seewald, from which the Vatican newspaper ran excerpts yesterday.
Mr Seewald, who interviewed Pope Benedict over the course of six days this summer, asked him if it weren't "madness" for the Vatican to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms. Pope Benedict replied: "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."
After the Pope mentions that the use of condoms could be justified in certain limited cases, such as by prostitutes, Mr Seewald asks: "Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of 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 towards a different way, a more human way, of living."
But he stressed that it wasn't the way to deal with the evil of HIV, and elsewhere in the book reaffirmed Church teaching on contraception and abortion, saying: "How many children are killed who might one day have been geniuses, who could have given humanity something new, who could have given us a new Mozart or some new technical discovery?"
Last night there was some confusion about the precise meaning of the Pope's words, not least concerning the example he used. In the English, German and French versions the phrase "a male prostitute" is used, but in the Italian translation, the words "una prostituta", meaning a female prostitute, is given.
Clarification may be needed beyond that. If the use of condoms is sanctioned for Catholics seeking to avoid the risk of HIV infection, does this apply to all such circumstances? And does it also apply to the prevention of other sexually transmitted diseases?
But whatever the final official interpretation is, his words appear to be a be a significant shift in the Vatican's traditional stance. Church teaching has long opposed the use of condoms but has been widely condemned, especially in the context of the worldwide Aids crisis. Pope Benedict drew unprecedented criticism from European governments, international organisations and scientists in March 2009 when he told reporters while flying to Africa that condoms would not resolve the Aids problem there, but would, on the contrary, exacerbate it.
Other leading prelates have made uncompromising statements about condoms in recent times. In 2009, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the former Archbishop of Westminster, said: "It is quite ridiculous to go on about Aids in Africa and condoms and the Catholic Church. I talk to priests who say, 'My diocese is flooded with condoms and there is more Aids because of them,'" And the Catholic bishops of Congo declared: "In all truth, the Pope's message, which we received with joy, has confirmed us in our fight against HIV/Aids. We say no to condoms!"
But these statements are not the whole story. Some Catholic theologians have argued that the use of a condom can be sanctioned if its main purpose is to prevent, say, a woman being infected with HIV by her husband, rather than to prevent the creation of a life.
There was certainly a welcome last night for Pope Benedict's words. Catherine Pepinster, editor of the Catholic weekly The Tablet, said from Rome: "Traditional Catholic teaching has opposed artificial birth control, but the Pope here is focusing his attention on something else: on the spread of disease ... Nevertheless, it's a groundbreaking moment for the Pope to say this."
The Pope's statements were greeted with a mixture of condemnation, confusion, and cautious approval by HIV charities working in Africa, where 6,500 people die each day from Aids. Eyob Ghebre-Sellassie, founder of African Aids Action, a UK charity working in east Africa, said: "Aids is killing many heterosexual women in Africa. Condoms would make a big difference in Africa – the Pope is in denial and I don't think he understands the problem on the ground."
Mr Ghebre-Sellassie, who was born in Eritrea and moved to the UK 10 years ago, said: "Aids is killing pregnant women and families too, and they should be encouraged to use condoms to save lives. We need the Pope to be specific about women, for whom condoms work very well."
A spokesman for Avert, an international HIV charity, said: "It's nice to see that Pope Benedict XVI accepts that condoms can prevent the transmission of disease ... I think it is a good and substantial move forward. This announcement is long overdue, and unless this includes everyone trying to protect a loved one, there are many more steps to take."
Caroline Nenguke, spokeswoman for the Treatment Action Campaign, South Africa's largest grassroots organisation fighting for the rights of people with HIV and Aids, said: "This is at least a step towards condom use, which is an important preventative measure to stop the spread of HIV. It's not such a surprise – sooner or later he had to face up to reality, and the reality is that as a preventative measure they are very important. But this news is long overdue, and if the Pope, as a church leader and leader of opinion, had said this a long time ago it would have saved lives."
Cardinal Elio Sgreccia, the Vatican's long-time top official on bioethics and sexuality, elaborated on the pontiff's comments, stressing that it was imperative to "make certain that this is the only way to save a life". Cardinal Sgreccia said the condom question was one that "needed an answer for a long time," adding: "If Benedict XVI raised the question of exceptions, this exception must be accepted... and it must be verified that this is the only way to save life. This must be demonstrated."
In the Seewald interviews, Pope Benedict also commented on other issues. He said that if a pope is no longer physically, psychologically or spiritually capable of doing his job, then he has the "right, and under some circumstances also an obligation, to resign"; he declined to endorse France's banning the burqa or Switzerland's citizen referendum to forbid mosques being topped with minarets. "Christians are tolerant, and in that respect they also allow others to have their self-image," he said. "I can see no reason for a general ban." He also said he was surprised by the scale of clerical sex abuse in his native Germany and acknowledged that the Vatican could have better communicated its response.
What they say: 'This shows we aren't sexually obsessed bigots'
"This is a miraculous development. It liberates Catholics from the label of being antiquated, sexually obsessed bigots. For decades it's been a stick with which to beat the Vatican and the Catholic community because it was a huge health and social issue."
Cristina Odone, Catholic writer
"The church's stance has always been that contraception to stop disease spreading is fine. It's with pregnancy that there has been a problem. I suspect these are comments that the Pope has merely stated again which have been blown out of proportion."
Ann Widdecombe, Catholic former MP
"It's a start. The Pope's attitude towards Africa has long been ridiculous. Contraception should be allowed when it is certain the husband or wife is HIV positive. But this change discriminates against heterosexual men, who should be given the same treatment as homosexual men."
Paul Bailey, gay Catholic writerReuse content