The Pope's Anti-Condom Remarks: Candor Over P.R.

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An Angolan woman folds a canvas picturing Pope Bendict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI's opposition to condoms, even as a weapon to help combat the spread of AIDS, should surprise no one who knows anything about Catholic Church teachings. The 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, penned by Pope Paul VI, explicitly forbids contraception as denying the Creator's will that humans be fruitful and multiply. In the years since, despite scientific consensus that condoms greatly reduce the risk of contracting the HIV virus, nothing has budged at the Vatican. Any artificial contraception is a sin against God. Full stop.

Still, Benedict's public declaration on March 17, as he was en route to Africa on his first visit as Pontiff, that advocacy of condoms actually "increases the problem" of AIDS has pushed the rhetorical envelope — and enraged may inside and outside the church — like only this quietly frank, theologically driven Pontiff knows how. The Spanish government announced it was sending 1 million condoms to Africa just as Benedict was arriving on the AIDS-ravaged continent. By the following evening, top government officials in France, Germany and the Netherlands had all publicly condemned the Pope's statement. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, accompanying Benedict on his weeklong trip to Cameroon and Angola, offered no sign that the Pontiff would back down from his statement. (See pictures of the Pope in France.)

Amid the outrage and consternation lies the question: Why? If we already know the basic tenets of church teaching — not to mention the extent of the AIDS epidemic and disproportionate ignorance about condom use in Africa — why did the Pope say what he said, when and where he said it? What do this and other recent episodes tell us about how the modern papacy operates at that unique nexus where philosophy meets public relations? And why, nearly four years into his reign, does this hyper-articulate and well-versed Pope continue to see his attempts at mass communication blow up in his face? (See pictures of the path of Pope Benedict XVI.)

First, to be clear, the Pope was responding to a reporter's question during the brief press conference that regularly takes place aboard his Alitalia jet just before takeoff (there have been 11 trips abroad). But he could hardly have been taken by surprise, as the questions are submitted ahead of time. Benedict might easily have opted for a pat response along the lines of, "Church teaching is clear on contraception. We must instead focus on education, abstinence and caring for those already infected."

Instead, the Pope chose to favor the letter of his philosophy over a smooth p.r. ride. Again. As with the recent controversy when he lifted the excommunication of four ultra-traditionalist bishops, including a Holocaust denier, Benedict plowed ahead with what he believed was the right thing to do, even if it brought a maelstrom of bad press. In this case, Benedict believes that condom use is part of a culture of promiscuity that is breaking down the traditional family, which in turn feeds the kind of behavior that spreads the HIV virus. (See pictures of the global fight against AIDS.)

The most explicit Vatican statement on the topic was the 2003 paper "Family Values vs. Safe Sex," written by the then head of the Pontifical Council, the late Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, who was widely criticized for questioning the science behind the efficacy of condoms in preventing AIDS. But the document also laid out the idea that Benedict seemed to be alluding to on the papal plane. "To control the pandemic [of AIDS], it is necessary to promote responsible sexual behavior that is inculcated by means of authentic sexual education, that respects the dignity of man and woman, and that does not consider others as mere instruments of pleasure," wrote López Trujillo. " 'Safe sex' campaigns have led not to an increase in prudence, but to an increase in sexual promiscuity and condom use. Human behavior is an important factor in the transmission of AIDS. Without adequate education aimed at abandoning certain risky sexual behavior in favor of well-balanced sexuality, as in premarital abstinence and marital fidelity, one risks perpetuating the pandemic's disastrous results."

In 2006 Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, retired archbishop of Milan — and one of the towering intellects in the church, often considered the yin to Benedict's yang — opined that condoms might be the lesser evil in some situations, notably when one partner in a proper marriage has the HIV virus. That same year, the Vatican health office said it would proceed with an internal study of the issue, though nothing further has come out.

Benedict's comments on Tuesday are the clearest sign that little if anything will change, as the Pope continues his quest to challenge secular trends both inside and outside his church by adhering to — and openly pronouncing — rigid stands on sexual and moral matters. (See pictures of the Pope in the U.S.)

Of course, his philosophy runs straight into reality. Catholic missionary groups are at the center of efforts to reduce the rate of HIV infection in Africa, which accounts for just over 12% of the world's population but has more than 60% of its AIDS cases. Speaking on French radio, European parliament member Daniel Cohen-Bendit called the Pope's latest comments "close to premeditated murder."

It is gospel in this information age that Benedict, for better or worse, should have learned by now: inflammatory rhetoric begets inflammatory rhetoric. What is less clear is whether this and the other recent firestorms he has sparked make the Pope more or less relevant to the citizens of the world — and to members of his own flock.

See pictures of the path of Pope Benedict XVI.

Read a TIME cover story on Pope Benedict XVI.