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.