VATICAN CITY – The Vatican has clarified that Pope Benedict XVI was not changing Church teaching on sexual responsibility in remarks published in a new book, but rather considering an “exceptional circumstance” in which sexual activity places a person’s life at risk.
While the pope was not morally justifying disordered sexual activity, he was saying that use of a condom to reduce the risk of transmitting AIDS may be an act of moral responsibility, Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi said on Nov 21.
He said it would be an exaggeration to call the pope’s comments “revolutionary”, but added that they offered a courageous and important contribution to a long-debated question.
In a new book released on Nov 23, the pope said the use of condoms may be a sign of moral responsibility in some specific situations when the intention is to reduce the risk of AIDS.
He addressed the issue in the book-length interview, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times.
In the book, the pope repeated what he said during a trip to Africa last year, that “we cannot solve the problem [of AIDS] by distributing condoms”. Focusing exclusively on condoms damages human sexuality, making it “banal” and turning it into a kind of “drug”, he said.
But he added that in particular cases condom use may be justified as a first step toward taking moral responsibility for one’s actions.
Here is the key passage as translated in the book’s English edition. The pope was asked whether it was “madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms”.
“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 discovering 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,” the pope said.
Peter Seewald, the German journalist who conducted the interview, then asked: “Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?”
The pope answered: “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 toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”
At a Nov 23 news conference, Fr Lombardi said he asked the pope whether the gender of the prostitute in his example was “He said no, that is, the main point ... is the first step of responsibility in taking into account the risk to the life of another person with whom one has relations,” Fr Lombardi said. “Whether a man or a woman or a transsexual does this, we’re at the same point. The point is the first step toward responsibility, to avoid posing a grave risk to another person.”
It was the first time any pope has said publicly that condom use may be acceptable in some cases.
Fr Lombardi, in his earlier staement, however, stressed that the pope “makes it clear that his intention was not to take up a position on the problem of condoms in general; his aim, rather was to reaffirm with force that the problem of AIDS cannot be solved simply by distributing condoms, because much more needs to be done”.
He added that the pope “does not morally justify the disordered practice of sexuality but maintains that the use of a condom to reduce the danger of infection can be ‘a first act of
responsibility’”. “In this, the reasoning of the pope certainly cannot be defined as a revolutionary change.”