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Pope says condom use OK in few cases

His remark appears to suggest a shift in the church's longstanding absolute opposition.

November 21, 2010|Mitchell Landsberg

In a seemingly offhand remark that caught the Roman Catholic world by surprise, Pope Benedict XVI appears to have relaxed, at least slightly, the Vatican's longstanding adamant opposition to the use of condoms.

In a book-length interview with a German journalist, portions of which were released Saturday, the pontiff said that under some circumstances it might be acceptable for a prostitute -- or, in some translations, a male prostitute -- to use a condom.

"There can be single justified cases," Benedict said, "for example when a prostitute uses a condom, and this can be the first step toward a moralization, a first act of responsibility in developing anew an awareness of the fact that not everything is permissible and that we cannot do everything we want."

"However," he said, "this is not the best way to overcome the infection of HIV. It is really necessary to humanize sexuality."

The comments appeared to be a departure, given that the pope spoke out against condom use as recently as March 2009 during a trip to Africa, when he said that the use of condoms could actually make the AIDS epidemic worse. That statement drew worldwide condemnation and, in the months since, some Catholic bishops seemingly have broken with the Vatican to call for the use of condoms to combat HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

South African Bishop Kevin Dowling, whose diocese has been devastated by AIDS deaths, said recently that people at risk of spreading HIV "should use a condom in order to prevent the transmission of potential death to another."

The bishop of the armed forces of Portugal, Januario Torgal Ferreira, was quoted as saying that "there are obviously circumstances where prohibiting condoms is to consent to the death of many people."

"So there's been a breaking of the ranks," said Daniel Maguire, a professor of theology at Marquette University, whose books include "Sacred Rights: The Case for Contraception and Abortion in World Religions."

Maguire said he thought the pope might have been influenced by that break. He added that the pontiff's remarks appeared to represent a significant "crack in the dike" of Catholic opposition to condom use, which was formalized in a 1968 encyclical "on the regulation of birth." The opposition stems from Catholic teaching that sex is for reproduction, and nothing should interfere with that.

"I would say it's an example of the pope clumsily backing out of an impossibly contorted taboo," Maguire said. "No matter how the conservatives describe it, he is approving the use of condoms in this case, and so that opens the door to asking: What about other cases?"

The pope spoke with journalist Peter Seewald, who interviewed the German-born Benedict over six days this summer. The book based on those interviews, "Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times," will be released Tuesday. The Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, ran excerpts Saturday, in which the pope was quoted as saying condoms could be acceptable in some circumstances "for a prostitute."

Those excerpts were published in Italian, and used a feminine form of the word "prostitute."

However, the website Catholic World Report published what it said were excerpts from the English translation of the book, which used the term "male prostitute" rather than simply "prostitute." It was not possible to immediately reconcile the two translations.

The excerpt also included this exchange:

Seewald: "Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?"

Benedict: "She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, 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."

Cardinal Elio Sgreccia, the Vatican's longtime top official on bioethics and sexuality, was quoted Saturday as saying that the condom issue was one that had "needed an answer for a long time."

"If Benedict XVI raised the question of exceptions, this exception must be accepted ... and it must be verified that this is the only way to save life. This must be demonstrated," Sgreccia said.

"It's a wonderful victory for common sense and reason, a significant step forward for the Vatican," said Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice. "They still have a way to go, but this is a fantastic start."

According to Maguire, Catholic teaching makes a distinction between acts that are "intrinsically evil" and those that are "discussable." The former category, he said, includes abortion, the torture of children and nuclear war. Benedict's comments appear to place condom use solidly into the latter category, which would make it possible for it to be considered acceptable as a lesser evil. That could open the door for it to be considered for broader application than just in cases involving prostitution.

The publication of excerpts from the book on Benedict coincided with the end of a consistory, a gathering of Catholic cardinals, during which the pope formally welcomed 24 new cardinals, including two Americans, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., and Raymond L. Burke, a top Vatican official.

The book also quoted Benedict as saying that a pope has a "right, and under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign" if he is no longer physically, psychologically or spiritually capable of doing his job.

And he said he was surprised by the scale of clerical sex abuse in his native Germany and seemed to criticize himself for not being more forthright in his response.

"One can always wonder whether the pope should not speak more often," he said.

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mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

Times staff writer Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report and the Associated Press was used in compiling it.

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