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Pope book breaks ice on Catholic view on condoms

posted 21 Nov 2010, 10:15 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 21 Nov 2010, 11:49 ]

A British Catholic journalist says Pope's comments shift debate but not doctrine, while AIDS activists urge further action in promoting condom use.

Pope Benedict's comments on the use of condoms in a bid to prevent the spread of HIV is not a change of doctrine but a shift in a long-standing debate, a British Catholic journalist said on Sunday (November 21).

Quotes from a new book of interviews with him made headlines around the world and some commentators suggested the Roman Catholic Church had made a sudden about-face on birth control and finally caught up with modern society.

But a close reading of those quotes shows the pontiff not breaking from past teachings but thinking his way through the issue with logic dating back to the 13th century Saint Thomas Aquinas. He concludes that condom use, while still wrong, can be a lesser evil in certain circumstances.

"The Church's ban on contraception remains. What he is talking about is the use of a condom which is basically not contraceptive, it's for medical purposes, the purpose is to prevent infection and he is saying that is actually for people who might be engaging in risky sexual behaviour and otherwise who aren't listening to the Church's message, that actually might be the right and responsible thing to do in order to prevent infection. He says this could be the beginning of a kind of a moral development in that person," explained British Catholic journalist Austen Ivereigh.

Ivereigh said the pope's comments might help people see that the Catholic Church, through its wide network of hospitals and clinics, actually does a great deal to care for AIDS patients in Africa.

Many Catholic theologians came to the same conclusion years ago and some priests in Africa privately advise this if the alternative is infection, for example to a woman whose HIV-positive husband demands sex.

But this is the first time a pope has publicly said it. The issue has been a minefield for popes and successive attempts to explain Church policy have backfired, as Benedict himself found out on a visit to Africa last year.

Back then, he caused an international uproar when he told journalists accompanying him to Africa that condoms should not be used because they could worsen the spread of AIDS.

The pontiff has now turned to a trusted Catholic journalist, fellow Bavarian Peter Seewald whose long interview with the pope forms the new book, to help reframe the argument in a way that makes Church doctrine seems less cold and absolute.

Churchgoers in London welcomed the pope's new stance.

"Even though it might not always be the most morale thing I'm very practical and if you can prevent suffering in some practical way I do agree with it, down on the shop floor of the world," said a London nurse.

"I'm very pleased the pope has come out with this position because I think it's a very good thing, it's something that should have been there even much longer ago," added a fellow churchgoer.

The Vatican convened a commission of moral theologians to study the issue in 2006 but their report, which Vatican sources say echoed what Benedict has said, was quietly shelved out of fear that any public statement would be misunderstood.

In the book Light of the World, Benedict stresses condom use is not a morally acceptable solution to the AIDS epidemic because he says it can turn sex from an expression of selfless love to "a sort of drug that people administer to themselves."

He then says it may be justified in some cases, such as that of an infected male prostitute protecting his sex partner.

By mentioning male prostitutes, Benedict found a way to condone some condom use to prevent AIDS while upholding the Church ban on artificial birth control that blocks procreation, which it says is the natural purpose of sex.

But while condom use does not block procreation in gay sex, it does do so in sex between men and women. Benedict stressed this in the book by repeating his support for Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical banning artificial birth control.

The problem for the Church is that it takes only a small step in logic to go from using this argument for gay men to using it for heterosexuals, or widening it to other issues.

Paul Ward, deputy chief of the London-based sexual health charity the Terrence Higgins Trust, hailed the pope's move but said the Church needs to do more to promote the use of safe sex.

"Sadly though, we know that, important though the pope's words are today, that it's not going to lead to an overnight change in the HIV prevention practice on the ground amongst many of those organisations who are linked to the Catholic Church. What's important in going forward is that first of all the Catholic Church doesn't seek to water down the pope's comments, secondly that the pope continues to emphasise the role that condoms can play in preventing the spread of HIV and thirdly, in time, and hopefully not too much time, we would like to see the Catholic Church goes much further in advocating the use of condoms, that's a really effective way of combating the spread of HIV, particularly in the developing world," Ward told Reuters in London.

Initial reaction in sub-Saharan Africa, which has seen dramatic improvements in the rates of HIV infection -- which have been partially attributed by the UN's AIDS programme to an increase in condom use -- has been mixed.