In Rare Cases, Pope Justifies Use of Condoms
By RACHEL DONADIO and LAURIE GOODSTEIN
ROME — Pope Benedict XVI has said that condom use can be justified in some cases to help stop the spread of AIDS, the Vatican’s first exception to a long-held policy banning contraceptives. The pope made the statement in interviews on a host of contentious issues with a German journalist, part of an unusual effort to address some of the harshest criticisms of his turbulent papacy.
The pope’s statement on condoms was extremely limited: he did not approve their use or suggest that the Roman Catholic Church was beginning to back away from its prohibition of birth control. In fact, the one example he cited as a possibly appropriate use was by male prostitutes.
Still, the statement was something of a milestone for the church and a significant change for Benedict, who faced intense criticism last year when, en route to AIDS-plagued Africa, he said condom use did not help prevent the spread of AIDS, only abstinence and fidelity did.
The interviews are to be published this week in a book, and excerpts were posted online by the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, on Saturday afternoon.
In the book, Benedict said condoms were not “a real or moral solution” to the AIDS epidemic, adding, “that can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.” But he also said that “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 moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.”
The decision to grant the interviews was a rare effort to humanize a pope often seen as a distant intellectual whose papacy has lurched from crisis to crisis, including revelations worldwide last spring that called into question the Vatican’s handling of cases of child abuse by priests.
Although Benedict, 83, took pains to explain his most controversial decisions, he did not veer from them. That included his defense of Pope Pius XII, whose tenure during World War II has been criticized by Jewish groups who say he could have done more to help Jews escape the Nazis.
Benedict also suggested several times that he was a victim of overly zealous critics, including those who criticized him for revoking the excommunication of a bishop who denied the scope of the Holocaust.
The pope did, however, acknowledge the church’s failings during the years that children were being abused. “The deeds themselves were hushed up and kept secret for decades,” he said. “That is a declaration of bankruptcy for an institution that has love written on its banner.”
The book, “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times,” comes from a series of interviews conducted in July by Peter Seewald, a German journalist and the author of two previous books of interviews with Benedict when he was still a cardinal. The New York Times saw an early copy of the English version of the book.
Benedict’s concession on condoms, however slight, may have left room for debate on the issue of whether they may be used as part of campaigns against AIDS.
The use of condoms has been a contentious issue ever since Pope Paul VI denounced birth control in his famous 1968 encyclical, “Humanae Vitae.”
In recent years, bishops in Africa and elsewhere have been calling on the Vatican to allow for condom use as part of a broader approach to fight the spread of H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS. At a news conference at the Vatican last year, Cardinal Peter Appiah Turkson of Ghana suggested, for instance, that condom use was worth considering for married couples in which one partner is H.I.V.-positive.
The Vatican has also faced pushback at some church-run health clinics in Africa, according to experts who say health care workers often ignore the teachings and distribute condoms.
Although the pope’s statements did not go nearly as far as some church leaders in Africa might like, the Rev. James Martin, who has written about the Vatican’s stance on the issue in “America,” a Jesuit publication in New York, said even a slight shift by the pope was noteworthy. “What’s significant is that this is an exception that’s being voiced by the pope, whereas previously there were no exceptions,” he said.
The Rev. Joseph Fessio, a former student of Benedict and the editor in chief of Ignatius Press, which is publishing the English-language edition of the book, said the pope’s new remarks on condoms were among the most surprising in the volume. But he also stressed that they were “very carefully qualified.”
“It would be wrong to say, ‘Pope Approves Condoms,’ ” Father Fessio said. “He’s saying it’s immoral but in an individual case, the use of a condom could be an awakening to someone that he’s got to be more conscious of his actions.”
The book devotes an entire chapter to the sexual abuse crisis that roared back in the spring, likening it to a natural disaster that marred a year Benedict had intended to celebrate priests. “One might think that the Devil could not stand the Year for Priests and therefore threw this filth in our faces,” he said.
He did, however, acknowledge that the scandal had undermined the moral authority of the Catholic Church. “It is not only the abuse that is upsetting, it is also the way of dealing with it,” he said.
Benedict also defended his decision to revoke the excommunication of four schismatic bishops, including one, Richard Williamson, who turned out to have denied the scope of the Holocaust, provoking international outrage that took the Vatican months to subdue. The pope reiterated that he did not know about Bishop Williamson’s statements.
Benedict’s statements in the book defending Pius XII, who he said “saved more Jews than anyone else” by opening up Italian convents, were already drawing an angry reaction Saturday from Holocaust victims groups. In March, Benedict moved Pius one step closer to sainthood.
Although Benedict mostly defended traditional Vatican policy, he did challenge one that affected him personally and appeared to show that the pontiff was contemplating his own age.
He said that if a pope “clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.”
George Weigel, a biographer of John Paul II, said that canon law is very clear that the papacy becomes vacant only when the pope dies.
“Benedict seems to be putting on the table something that is generally spoken about behind closed doors,” Mr. Weigel said.
Rachel Donadio reported from Rome, and Laurie Goodstein from New York.
DeChristianated Opinion Section
The Pope said before that condoms only aggravated the problem. Here is an old video – what ever happened to this statement?. Only 6000 South Africans died each day that the Church taught them that the use of condoms actually increased the spread AIDS. That is more than died in 911.
I can’t see that the Church will allow and preach it is o.k. for (non married) Catholics in South Africa to freely be using them. The country is ravaged by prostitution that is the only means for single mothers to feed their children. It is a promiscuous society, but it is not fair to put American’s values on them. I don’t think this statement necessarily helps. Married people don’t need condoms in South Africa.
Sorry everyone, I don’t mean to sound angry,
But for me this is a very sore spot. I really don’t think the war is won, unless single non-married use is condoned. I think, personally, that this is all political checkers and response to pressure from WHO and others.
I know a man working with AIDS victims in South Africa. He is a Buddhist and very mild mannered. However he said he is about “sick of the Church’s Bullshit.” They only have gotten in the way of everything that they do.
Thanks for letting me blow off steam. I really have had a problem with the Church for a long time. I want to hear the Pope say condoms “for all” then I think I can let go of some of the resentment.
What ever happened to the statement in the video below. Did it just go away? No it was a lie. How can this just be undone? I don’t trust this statement by the pope about condoms and exceptions.
I unfortunately think that this whole new “approval” is not much help at all if it does not help ALL South Africans by condoning use of condoms by anyone. Married or Not.