When Pope Benedict called cardinals from all over the world to Rome to meet for talks at the weekend and the appointment of new "red hats", nobody would have foreseen that this gathering – called a consistory – would be overshadowed by rival headlines about the Pope himself.
But in the middle of the consistory came revelations of a new book-cum-interview with Benedict XVI in which he indicated a change in thinking on the use of condoms to combat the spread of the HIV. In Peter Seewald's volume The Light of The World, to be published this week, Pope Benedict has indicated that he sees the possibility of it being acceptable for a male prostitute to use a condom to prevent infection.
He's not chucking overboard the Catholic Church's traditional stance against artificial birth control; rather, he is suggesting the prophylactic is used to prevent harm. Catholic teaching says sexual intercourse should be open to the creation of life – that is a good – but various Catholic theologians and cardinals have said for some time that condoms could be used to help halt the evil of the spread of disease and death.
The Pope's throwing of a chink of light on this issue, while still remaining consistent with church teaching, will come as a relief to many Catholics in the West, troubled by what they saw as their church's intransigence. It will also give hope to Catholic aid workers, particularly in Africa, where they play a substantial role nursing Aids victims and caring for orphaned children.
While the church has always advocated chastity as the best way of stopping the spread of HIV, and that will remain its ideal, pragmatic aid workers know you have to start where people are – and some of those people will ignore encouragement to abstain from risky sex. That is where condoms can play their part.
While the Pope talks about the example of a male prostitute, many Catholics will now want to hear his words of compassion for women such as those in Africa whose husbands travel for work, sleep around, and then infect them with HIV.
On Saturday night in Rome, I dined with several cardinals who were in town for the consistory. Some expressed approval at what Benedict was saying about Aids and condoms, and one said to me: "It is women who are really suffering; we must think about them."
Through the scandal of sex abuse the Church has lost a great deal of credibility on sexual morality. Pope Benedict's comments suggest he has been listening compassionately to what is being said about Aids and condoms. He may also have helped repair the Catholic Church's damaged reputation.
Catherine Pepinster is editor of the Catholic weekly 'The Tablet'Reuse content