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Vatican clarifies pope's condom comments

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Pope Benedict XVI, framed by Christmas decorations, delivers his Angelus prayer from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino) Pope Benedict XVI, framed by Christmas decorations, delivers his Angelus prayer from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican on Tuesday sought to clarify the pope's controversial comments about condoms and HIV, saying he by no means suggested condom use could be condoned as a means of avoiding pregnancy.

The Vatican's moral watchdog, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a statement Tuesday saying some commentators had misunderstood and misrepresented the pope's remarks in a book-length interview released last month entitled "Light of the World."

The Vatican has been under pressure from conservative theologians to issue such a clarification amid widespread confusion about what Pope Benedict XVI meant and whether he was breaking with church teaching.

In the book, Benedict said that condoms weren't the real or moral solution to battling HIV and AIDS. But he said the intention to use condoms in some cases, such as for male prostitutes, could be a first step toward a more moral and responsible human sexuality.

The Vatican statement reaffirmed that the church considered prostitution "gravely immoral."

"However, those involved in prostitution who are HIV positive and who seek to diminish the risk of contagion by the use of a condom may be taking the first step in respecting the life of another even if the evil of prostitution remains in all its gravity," the statement said.

It insisted that Benedict's statement was "in full conformity with the moral theological tradition of the church."

The pope's remarks have been mired in confusion ever since they were first published as excerpts in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano on Nov. 20. Tuesday's statement was the third Vatican clarification since then.

Moral theologians have filled blogs and religious publications with interpretations and counter-interpretations, criticisms of the media, L'Osservatore and the pope himself, with many questioning whether he should have even broached the issue in such a casual way, given the nuance of his message and the risk that it would be misinterpreted.

Matters weren't helped by the fact that the official Italian translation of the original German published in L'Osservatore contained two translation errors: It used the word "justified" in the pope's remarks — implying to some that the pope was justifying condom usage in some circumstances.

And it also used the feminine version of 'prostitute' as opposed to the pope's original masculine — an important distinction given that condoms in heterosexual intercourse can be used as a form of artificial contraception, which the church opposes.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, added to the confusion when he told reporters at the official book presentation Nov. 23 that he had spoken to the pontiff and asked if it mattered whether the prostitute in question was male or female. Lombardi said the pope told him no, and that it didn't matter if it was a man, woman or transsexual.

In the new statement, which was printed in full in L'Osservatore, the Vatican didn't specify whether the prostitute was male or female, referring only to "those involved in prostitution." But it stressed that Benedict was not talking about sex between husband and wife or condom use as a form of contraception.

"The idea that anyone could deduce from the words of Benedict XVI that it is somehow legitimate, in certain situations, to use condoms to avoid an unwanted pregnancy is completely arbitrary and is in no way justified either by his words or in his thought," the statement said.

Nor, the statement continued, was the pope saying condom use by male prostitutes could be chosen as a "lesser evil" since prostitution and homosexual sex are still evil and can never be condoned. But the statement implied that the intention of the prostitute to use a condom to prevent disease was less evil than infecting his partner.

Reports of the pope's original comments had been greeted with relief among AIDS activists and even among some church personnel working on the front lines in Africa, where UNAIDS estimates that 22.4 million people are infected with HIV.

While the Catholic Church has no official policy about condoms as a means to fight the spread of HIV, its long-standing opposition to condoms as a form of birth control has drawn fierce criticism given that 54 percent of infected Africans — or 12.1 million people — are women.

Benedict drew the wrath of the United Nations, AIDS activists and many European governments when, en route to Africa in 2009, he told reporters that the AIDS problem couldn't be resolved by distributing condoms. "On the contrary, it increases the problem," he said then.

His comments in "Light of the World" signaled to many a shift at least in pastoral terms in his thinking and a first in acknowledging that condoms can have a role to play in fighting HIV. Previously Vatican officials had focused on abstinence and fidelity in marriage as the only sure way to prevent HIV's spread.

George Weigel, a conservative Catholic writer who has criticized both L'Osservatore and the mainstream news media for its handling of the pontiff's remarks, welcomed the Vatican clarification and said he hoped it would help correct misinterpretations in the media.

"I'm grateful that the congregation has made clear that, contrary to widespread reports and even more widespread speculation, the moral teaching of the Church remains consistent, unchanged, and compassionate in its efforts to promote a genuinely human and humane sexuality," he said in an e-mail. But he added it should have been issued sooner.

The Rev. Jon Fuller, a Jesuit associate professor of medicine at Boston University's medical school, said the clarification confirmed there was no change in church teaching about using condoms within marriage to avoid pregnancy.

But concerning AIDS, "it does appear to confirm what many believe had been suggested by the pope: that in at least some cases of extramarital sexual activity an individual may not only contemplate the use of, but may actually use, a condom, to respect another's life."

He noted that the statement did not discuss a scenario which the Vatican itself has studied and apparently shelved: the use of a condom by a married couple where one partner is HIV-positive and the other is not. In such a case, Fuller noted, "the intention is not to contracept, but rather to protect another's life."

 

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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