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Vatican Clarifies Pope's Statements on Condoms

3 years ago
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The Vatican has clarified controversial statements by Pope Benedict XVI on condom use to prevent AIDS in an effort to end speculation that he has relaxed the church ban on artificial birth control. But the Catholic Church also spoke out to head off a dispute among conservatives over what the pontiff really meant.

In the statement issued on Tuesday, the Vatican said that Benedict's comments in a book-length interview last month did not mark "a break with the doctrine concerning contraception," an interpretation that some media outlets made in the immediate aftermath of the publication of the book, called "Light of the World."

In the volume, compiled from a series of interviews conducted last July by a German journalist sympathetic to Benedict, the pope said that in some cases involving a likely transmission of AIDS, such as by a male prostitute, using a condom "can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility."

The comments were taken to mean that the pope was agreeing with the longstanding argument by Catholic ethicists and health care practitioners that condoms in some cases could be justified, perhaps as a "lesser evil," in cases where not using one would lead to the death of another person.

The remarks created a furor and a spate of interpretations from left and right. A Vatican spokesman later clarified that the pope meant what he said, and added that he was not restricting his example only to gay sex workers.

The Vatican also indicated that the pope was invoking principles of the lesser evil -- opting for the best case when faced with two bad options -- though the pontiff did not want to use that exact term because it could signal that he was endorsing an intrinsically immoral action.

Intense debate continued, however, in a friendly firefight on the Catholic right. Ethicists argued either that the pope was wrong or that he had been misinterpreted even by a number of conservative Catholic thinkers who saw no problem with Benedict's arguing for a "toleration" of condoms in some cases while not endorsing them as an intrinsic good.

In Tuesday's statement, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office of orthodoxy once headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before his election as Benedict XVI, the Vatican explicitly said that the pope did not mean to invoke the "lesser evil" argument because that concept could lead to "misinterpretation."

But it did reiterate his original comments:
"The Church teaches that prostitution is immoral and should be shunned," the statement says. "However, those involved in prostitution who are HIV positive and who seek to diminish the risk of contagion by the use of a condom may be taking the first step in respecting the life of another -- even if the evil of prostitution remains in all its gravity. This understanding is in full conformity with the moral theological tradition of the Church."
That statement seems to vindicate the position advocated by Father Martin Rhonheimer, a member of the conservative Opus Dei order, whose 2004 article in a Catholic periodical arguing for a toleration of condoms to prevent AIDS ramped up the long-simmering debate.

The pope's original comments in November seemed to coincide with Rhonheimer's views, but a number of conservatives sharply disagreed, and the two sides have been engaged in a trenchant debate ever since.

To some, the latest Vatican statement seems to place the pope's comments under the classic principle of the "double effect," which says that if you use a condom -- for example -- to save a life and not as a contraceptive, then the first effect (saving a life) mitigates the second effect, which may be to avert pregnancy.

That moral reasoning is, in fact, contained in Humanae Vitae (Paragraph 15), the 1968 papal encyclical barring Catholics from using artificial contraception.

The upshot of this debate is important for Catholic teaching and for the freedom to argue doctrinal issues publicly and to invoke the great breadth of the Catholic intellectual tradition.

But it can, of course, dig so deeply into abstract concepts that it begins to sound like the classic example of theologians debating the sex of angels -- irrelevant, in other words, to real life application.

That's not the case here, however. Whatever category of ethical thinking the pope's remarks cover, they have effectively provided support to Catholic health care workers around the world -- the Catholic Church is largest private provider of care to AIDS patients -- to continue using a variety of strategies to combat the disease.

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