Catholic AIDS Workers Debate Pope's Condom Remarks

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Stephen Chernin / AP

A bust of Pope Benedict XVI watches over congregants during Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010

Almost a week after news emerged that the Pope had told an interviewer that there are some situations when using a condom could be morally justified in the fight against AIDS, people on both sides of the issue are still debating what the implications of his comment will be. "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 assumption of responsibility on the way toward discovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants," Benedict XVI was quoted as telling the German journalist Peter Seewald during a series of interviews in July.

The Pope could not have been unaware of the impact his words would have. In March 2009, he ignited a firestorm of controversy when, on a trip to Africa, he told journalists that the distribution of condoms increased the problem of AIDS. Intended or not, the Pope's recent statement has reignited a hotly contested debate in the Vatican and sent ripples through the Catholic community, particularly in areas hard-hit by the AIDS virus. "It's a big deal," says Günther Simmermacher, editor of the Southern Cross, a weekly Catholic newspaper in South Africa. "If the Pope is talking about it, then the debate has been opened."

First published on Nov. 20 in the Vatican newspaper, the Pope's comments were extracted from a book of his interviews with Seewald, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times, which was published three days later. Presented as personal opinion, not as church doctrine, they fall far short of endorsing the use of condoms, except in very specific cases in which their use would constitute the lesser of evils. Condoms are "not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection," Benedict said. "That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality." Condoms, he added, can be "in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality."

Nonetheless, the Pope's words could have a far-reaching impact. The Catholic Church is one of the largest providers of AIDS relief services in poor countries, and the Vatican's rigid stance on condoms has created tensions between the church and those working in an industry that sees the latex contraceptives as an important tool in the fight against the virus. "The Pope hasn't created a new doctrine," says Mario Marazziti, spokesman for the Community Sant'Egidio, a Catholic charity that provides antiretroviral medication to 100,000 HIV-positive patients in Africa. "But he has clarified something that's always been clear in the moral theology — that the church is working in the defense of life."

Marazziti says Sant'Egidio has never distributed condoms but provides counseling that includes information about their use. "We have women and men who live together in marriage, where one is HIV-positive and the other isn't," he says. "They know the problem of transmission. They'll decide what to do." The Pope's comments, says Marazziti, will "create a climate that is more relaxed" for those engaged in the fight against the epidemic. "It will be easier ... to help encourage responsible and effective behavior to really fight AIDS."

Of course, the Pope's statement is far from the last word on the subject. Many in the church have been quick to stress how limited the Pontiff's endorsement was. "It's not as though the Pope is saying that instead of going into the deeper part of hell, where the fire is really hot, you can go to this medium part where it's not as strong," says Robert A. Gahl Jr., an ethics professor at Rome's Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. "There are some scenarios where public officials, including Catholics, can in a very targeted way intervene with people already committed to certain types of behavior. But they should always in the first place be looking to help people to rescue themselves from that behavior."

If anything, says Southern Cross editor Simmermacher, the discussion has only begun. "If the Pope says that condoms are licit under certain circumstances, it opens up the debate as to what those circumstances are," he says. "The Pope just gave us one example. But there must be other examples as well."