Pope drops bombshell on AIDS, condoms. Or does he?

Amid all the uproar over Pope Benedict XVI’s comments about AIDS and condoms in his new book-length interview, you could be forgiven for thinking he had actually said anything new. 

Actually, his saying it was new. A pope has never pointed out the obvious before: that it’s better for a male prostitute with AIDS to use a condom than not. (For the pope’s entire words, and an analysis by U.S. theologian Janet Smith, see In Focus, Pages 11-14.) But this is a topic moral theologians have been looking at for years, including at the Vatican. 

When I worked in the Rome bureau of Catholic News Service a decade ago, I wrote a 1,200-word story on this very issue after a Vatican official published an article saying for Thai prostitutes use of a condom would be a “lesser evil” than unprotected sex. 

Among the theologians and Church officials I interviewed was Dominican Father Georges Cottier, Pope John Paul II’s in-house theologian, who said there was also ongoing debate in academic circles about whether it would be permissible for a Catholic couple, in which one of the spouses was infected with AIDS, to use a condom if the intent was not contraceptive but to protect the life of the healthy spouse. 

(But another theologian with whom I spoke made a pretty convincing argument against the Catholic couple condom “exception,” based on the fact that condoms do not entirely eliminate the serious risk of infection. He questioned whether spouses with AIDS who truly loved their partners could subject them to such danger, and asked hypothetically, “If one spouse instead had a heart condition that made sexual activity potentially fatal, wouldn’t the couple avoid sex and find other ways to live their love for each other?”) 

Using words awfully similar to those just used by Pope Benedict, Franciscan Father Maurizio Faggioni, a moral theologian who is also a medical doctor, told me condom use by prostitutes might be seen as one step “in a progression of human liberation.” 

“A woman who understands that she cannot put her life or the life of another in danger is a woman who has grown morally, in comparison to a woman who has no consideration for her health or the health of others,” he said. 

“Only in this path of pastoral graduality is it possible to tolerate — here, Catholic ethics does not approve, but tolerates — the use of a prophylactic,’’ said Father Faggioni, who serves as a consultor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office formerly headed by Pope Benedict. 

So no big change here. Condom use might be OK [Clarification: "OK" here obviously doesn't mean morally good; it means morally better than the alternative] on a case-by-case basis where it’s a step forward in moral responsibility. But advocating condom use as public policy is still unacceptable because it tacitly approves immoral behavior and might even encourage it. 

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