Vatican spokesman’s remarks on condoms add to confusion, top US theologian says

Father Frederico Lombardi 2 CNA Vatican Catholic News 11 23 10 Father Federico Lombardi

Remarks by the Vatican spokesman intended to clarify the Pope's meaning on the use of condoms in the fight against AIDS have only caused further confusion, a leading U.S. moral theologian said.

Dr. John Haas suggested the spokesman might have misunderstood the Pope’s meaning when he told a press conference Nov. 23 that the Pope would condone condom use not only by male prostitutes, but also by women and even “transsexuals.”

As controversy over the condom issue continued for a fourth day in media reports and in comments from international agencies dealing with the AIDS crisis, Haas told CNA, “We ought to let the Pope speak for himself.”

The controversy began Nov. 20 when the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano broke an embargo and published excerpts from "Light of the World,” a new book based on conversations between Pope Benedict XVI and German journalist Peter Seewald.

L'Osservatore Romano ran only two paragraphs of the Pope's comments on condom use and the global AIDS crisis, although the original discussion in the book is more than two pages long.

The paper quoted Pope Benedict as reaffirming the stance he took in 2009 during his trip to Africa, where he said that condoms are not the answer to the AIDS crisis. In fact, his full answer reaffirmed the Church's negative judgment against condom use, which he said was “of course” not a “real or moral solution” to AIDS or other problems.

However, the Pope also observed that condom use in some circumstances, although not justified, may indicate an individual's awareness that sex has moral meaning and consequences. This, in turn, the Pope said, might lead the person to a greater sense of moral responsibility.

He cited the example of a male prostitute using a condom. The Pope said “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.”

Although the Pope stressed again that condoms are not “the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection,” his remarks set off a media firestorm, with major news outlets reporting a “shift” and even a “U-turn” in Church thinking on this issue.

The storm had begun to die down by Nov. 23, the book’s official release date.

But in a Vatican press conference called to celebrate the book’s release, papal spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, reignited the controversy.

The translation of the Pope's interview – originally conducted in German – was questioned. Despite the word “prostitute” being used in masculine form in German and English, the Italian translation suggested the Pope might have been referring to female prostitutes.

Asked about this by reporters, Father Lombardi said that it makes no difference whether Pope Benedict was referring to a male or female prostitute.

“I asked the Pope personally if there was a serious or important problem in the choice of the masculine gender rather than the feminine, and he said no,” Father Lombardi said. 

The Pope’s main point, he added, was that condom use by prostitutes might represent “the first step of responsibility in taking into account the risk to the life of another person with whom one has relations.”

“Whether a man or a woman or a transsexual does this, we’re at the same point,” Fr. Lombardi said. “The point is the first step toward responsibility, to avoid posing a grave risk to another person.”

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Media reaction to Fr. Lombardi’s remarks was swift, with nearly every major news agency reporting that the Pope believes that condom use – even in heterosexual relations – is a lesser evil than transmitting HIV to one's partner.

This confusion on a fundamental matter of Church moral teaching is hardly helpful, Dr. Haas told CNA. 

Haas, head of the National Center for Catholic Bioethics and a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said the Pope should issue comments of his own on the situation.

Haas said people need to keep in mind that Seewald's book “is not a formal teaching document – it's an interview with a journalist.”

The book, he said, “has no magisterial weight whatsoever.”

However, Haas was troubled by Fr. Lombardi's remarks, which he said seem to misrepresent what the Pope is trying to argue in the book. 

“The gender of the prostitute is indeed relevant to the point the Pope wanted to make with regard to the use of condoms,” Haas said.

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Referring to the Pope’s specific example of a male prostitute, Haas said, the “presumption is that the male prostitute has AIDS. His decision to use a condom perhaps might mean some expression of concern and regard for the other person.”

“Even in the midst of an act of prostitution and an act of sodomy, the man still has concern for the 'other,'” Haas said, explaining the Pope’s point.

Further, this concern “might actually lead eventually to a life of chastity out of love for the other.”

Haas said Pope's remarks reflect his "profound optimism about human nature." But he questioned the exact meaning of Fr. Lombardi's comments, as they have been reported in the international media.

Haas pointed out that female prostitutes do not use condoms. If a female prostitute does use condoms, he said, that act would likely reflect a selfish concern – to protect herself from disease.

"She would want to protect herself from being infected and in no way would be expressing the concern for the 'other' that the Pope said might be the first step toward 'moralization' if it were being done by a male prostitute."

“This is why the example of a female prostitute doesn't work,” Haas said.

Haas held out the possibility that either Fr. Lombardi’s remarks had been misreported or that perhaps he had been “mistaken” about the Pope’s meaning.  

“We ought to let the Pope speak for himself,” he said.

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