The Vatican on Sunday rushed to clarify a recent interview by Pope Benedict XVI, in which the pontiff states for the first time that there may be some cases in which the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on condoms isn’t absolute.
The pope made the comments in a book-length interview over the summer with the German writer Peter Seewald that will be officially released this week. Mr. Seewald asked the pope about criticism of the Vatican’s perceived opposition to condom use to fight the spread of HIV-AIDS in Africa.
The pope’s response, while carefully couched, has ricocheted around the globe, reigniting one of the most tensely debated issues facing the Roman Catholic Church. To some, the interview signaled a radical shift in the Church’s approach to combating the spread of AIDS as well as an unprecedented departure from the Church’s long-time practice of condemning any form of condom use.
“This is a significant and positive step forward taken by the Vatican,” said Michel Sidibé, executive director executive director of UNAIDS, the United Nations’ AIDS relief agency based in Geneva. “This move recognizes that responsible sexual behavior and the use of condoms have important roles in HIV prevention.”
The Vatican, however, played down the potential impact the remarks might have on church teaching. “The pope’s thinking certainly can’t be defined as a revolutionary shift,” said Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said in a lengthy statement issued on Sunday.
In the interview, the pope said condom use had become a “fixation” for some people, according to the English-language edition of the book viewed by The Wall Street Journal.
The pope then added: “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, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.”
In the interview, the pope noted that even in extreme scenarios such as male prostitution, condom use “is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.” The pope added that the church remained opposed to any widespread use of condoms that “implies a banalization of sexuality.”
“The pope wasn’t taking a position on condoms in general,” Father Lombardi said. Instead, the pope “wanted to forcefully affirm that the problem of AIDS can’t be resolved merely through the distribution of condoms,” Father Lombardi said.
Father Lombardi acknowledged, however, that the pope had to “consider exceptional situations where the exercise of sexuality represents a real risk to someone’s life.” Having “disordered” sex isn’t morally justified, Father Lombardi added, but the use of condoms in such situations can “reduce the danger of infection.”
For decades, the Vatican’s ban on condom’s appeared iron-clad, because church teaching rejects contraception. The rise of HIV in developing countries, however, has prompted many humanitarian aid agencies to press the Vatican to modify its opposition to condoms. The Catholic Church is one of the biggest providers of humanitarian aid in Africa, and some Catholic aid workers there have begun to simply ignore the Vatican’s rule.
Over the years, a handful of cardinals and one Vatican official in charge of health care have suggested that condom use could be condoned in extreme situations, such as when a woman asks her HIV-infected husband to wear a condom, because she cannot stop his advances.
“Benedict XVI has courageously given us an important contribution, clarifying and deepening a long-debated question. It’s an original contribution,” Father Lombardi said.
The pope himself stirred controversy in 2009 when he told reporters aboard a papal flight to Africa that condom use could “increase the problem” of HIV’s spread—a comment that many interpreted to mean that the pope considered condoms ineffective.
In the interview with Mr. Seewald, the pope says he felt “provoked” by the line of questioning aboard the papal flight, suggesting that his response was misinterpreted. He then reflects at length on the use of condoms to fight HIV, which he says is not the “moral solution, but … in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”
Mr. Seewald’s book, culled from a week of interviews at the papal summer residence in July, is a rare example of pope expressing candid views on some of the most challenging points in his pontificate. He likens the sex-abuse crisis to “the crater of a volcano, out of which suddenly a tremendous cloud of filth came, darkening and soiling everything.”
When asked whether he ever thought of resigning in the wake of the crisis, the pontiff responds that “now is certainly not the time to resign,” saying he must “stand fast and endure the difficult situation.”
A moment later, however, the pontiff makes an unusual assertion: that popes aren’t bound under church law to serve until they die, as many canon lawyers have said. “One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from danger and say that someone else should do it,” the pope says.
Excerpts of the interview first appeared in the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, which sent advanced copies of its Sunday edition to reporters on Saturday.
Gianmaria Vian, L’Osservatore’s editor-in-chief, described the book as a “bomb,” adding that the pope had spoken with “great frankness” on a range of issues.
Stacy Meichtry, Wall Street Journal