Vatican says teaching on condoms unchanged

December 21, 2010

According to the Vatican, Pope Bene­dict XVI's comments published
late last year about condoms do not mark a change in "Catholic moral
teaching" or "pastoral practice" on AIDS prevention or contraception.

The
statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the Catholic
Church's highest doctrinal body, represents a rare official
clarification of a pope's words from a Vatican agency. It came in
response to widespread controversy and confusion over Benedict's remarks
about condoms in "Light of the World," a lengthy interview with the
pope published in November and prompting a clarification before
Christmas.

Some commentators had interpreted Benedict's words as
constituting a reversal of the church's longstanding opposition to
condom use for disease prevention and even a possible shift in Catholic
teaching against contraception more generally.

While insisting
that condoms are not a "real or moral solution" to the AIDS epidemic,
Benedict had said "in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, 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."

The
pope had offered the hypothetical example of a male prostitute, whose
condom use could "be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a
first assumption of responsibility" in not spreading a disease to his
partner. (Benedict later added through a spokesman that his statement
would apply equally well to the case of a female prostitute.)

On
December 21, the Vatican insisted that nothing had changed. "The thought
of the pope has been repeatedly manipulated for ends and interests
which are entirely foreign to the meaning of his words," said the
statement. It added that it would be "completely arbitrary" and "in no
way justified" to suggest that Benedict had sanctioned the use of
condoms "to avoid an unwanted pregnancy."

The statement noted that
Benedict, in the same interview, promoted the use of "natural family
planning," the only form of birth control permitted by Catholic
teaching.

While acknowledging that a prostitute or client "who
uses a condom in order to diminish the risk posed to another person is
intending to reduce the evil connected with his or her immoral
activity," the Vatican statement cautioned against describing such a
case in terms of its being the lesser evil. "An action which is
objectively evil, even if a lesser evil, can never be licitly willed,"
the Vatican said, underscoring that the "church teaches that
prostitution is immoral and should be shunned."

According to
Robert A. Gahl Jr., an American priest who teaches ethics at Rome's
Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, the Vatican statement "makes
clear that the pope in no way intended to recommend that anybody use a
condom under any circumstances. He was not trying to say anything new
about contraception or condoms."

The statement does not address
the plight of married couples in which one partner is infected with HIV
and whether they may use condoms merely to prevent transmitting the
virus.

A long-awaited study by the Vatican health-care office was
expected to ad­dress that question, but earlier this year an official of
that office said that work on the study had been indefinitely
suspended.  —RNS