Opaque as it is, Pope Benedict XVI's statement that condom use might be justified to prevent the transmission of AIDS is a significant development. His fellow bishops, especially those in Africa, should feel liberated to apply the pope's observation to a public health effort that has been hampered by the Vatican's dogmatism.
As his critics point out, the pope's comments — in a newly published book of interviews — fell short of endorsing widespread use of prophylactics to prevent the transmission of AIDS and other diseases, and they certainly didn't question the church's opposition to contraception. But they contrast dramatically with his insistence last year that society "can't resolve [the AIDS epidemic] with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem." No amount of spin by church officials can disguise that change. (The Vatican spokesman said that "the pope is not reforming or changing the teaching of the church.")
The pope's actual words were characteristically elliptical. He told an interviewer: "There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility." He added that "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's example of a male prostitute is peculiar, suggesting that AIDS is a gay disease or that it is found only on society's fringes. In fact, in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, AIDS is widely transmitted through heterosexual intercourse, including sex inside marriage. He also seems to be saying that condom use is more acceptable when it's the first step on the road to abstinence or marriage. The HIV virus doesn't make such distinctions. It isn't only in "this or that case" that condoms protect against the transmission of disease.
Still, for all the qualifications, Benedict has acknowledged the applicability to AIDS of the traditional Catholic doctrine of the "double effect." That teaching holds that an action with an immoral effect can be permissible if it also has a good effect. So even if one assumes that contraception is wrong (a proposition traditionally asserted by the Vatican although it is widely rejected by Catholics in the developed world), the use of a condom can be justified because it reduces the transmission of disease.
It's unrealistic to expect this conservative pope to modify the church's strictures against birth control or to stop pressing for abstinence. But we hope Benedict's words reflect his recognition that common sense, and Christian charity, require a more compassionate approach than the church has offered in the past.