Pope’s remarks on condoms sow widespread confusion
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Some Roman Catholics are confused. Some are angry. Others just don’t believe the pope meant what it seems he said.
Days after the release of Pope Benedict XVI’s comments that condoms can be justified to prevent the spread of HIV, there is widespread confusion about exactly what he was trying to say. The remarks have put some of the strictest defenders of church teachings in the awkward position of potentially disagreeing with the pontiff.
Many church officials worldwide have been conspicuously silent. Some bishops are even seeking clarification from the Vatican.
“It’s a mess,” said John Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, which advises church leaders, hospitals and Vatican offices. “I’m not ready to say that the pope said what (papal spokesman Rev. Frederico) Lombardi said.”
On a practical level, most Catholic-affiliated charities that minister to people at high risk of contracting AIDS are unlikely to make changes anytime soon.
Haas, also a moral theologian, said he fielded calls all day Tuesday from confused bishops. Benedict’s comments come at a time when American bishops are focused on upholding Catholic orthodoxy on marriage and sexuality.
“It’s important to recognize this is not some blanket opening of the door for married people to use artificial birth control,” said Mark Silk, director of the Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.
In some heavily Catholic nations, church leaders have avoided discussing the matter. In Spain, Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela made no mention of the pope’s statements during a meeting of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference.
When pressed by reporters, only Cardinal Carlos Amigo responded. Church leaders, he said, would have to read the book carefully first.
In the Andes region of South America, there appeared to be few mentions of the pope in news media, and his remarks were not mentioned in services at several Masses attended by Associated Press reporters.
The National Conference of Brazilian Bishops said it would not comment. Brazil has one of the world’s most advanced anti-AIDS programs, and the government distributes more than 200 million free condoms each year, especially during Carnival.
The Brazilian church has officially opposed the distribution of condoms, but historically has done little to stop it.
The U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops has not issued a statement and referred questions to the Vatican.
The uproar is over comments Benedict made in a new book titled “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times.” In an exchange with the author about AIDS in Africa, Benedict said that for some people, such as male prostitutes, using condoms could be a step in assuming moral responsibility because the intent is to “reduce the risk of infection.”
At a news conference Tuesday in Rome, Lombardi said Benedict knew his comments would provoke intense debate, and that the pope meant for his remarks to apply not just to male prostitutes, but also “if you’re a man, a woman, or a transsexual.”
The pope did not suggest using condoms as birth control, which is banned by the Roman Catholic Church, and he said condoms were not a “real or moral solution” to the AIDS crisis. Catholic teaching has never totally barred condom use for protection against HIV, and the Vatican has no official policy on the issue.
Larry Barkowski, a lifelong Catholic and married father of three from the Pittsburgh suburb of Natrona Heights, doesn’t believe the comments constitute anything new.
“The popes have always promulgated responsible parenthood and responsible sexuality, and this is just a continuation of that. This is really nothing new other than the fact that he addressed the actual use of the condom, which has been something of a taboo,” Barkowski said.
Catholic groups who minister to AIDS sufferers and those at high risk of contracting HIV agreed that the pope’s remarks — and the rival interpretations of them — leave long-standing practices in place.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles began what is likely the first U.S. Catholic AIDS ministry in 1986. The Rev. Chris Ponnet, who directs HIV and AIDS outreach efforts, said the pope’s comments do not mean a change in doctrine or in practice. Catholic outreach groups are not going to start distributing condoms, he said, adding that a singular focus on condoms ignores the roots of the problem.
“Consistently, the church has called for faithfulness in marriage and for people not to use intravenous drugs, and that’s proven wise counsel,” he said.
Ponnet sees Benedict’s remarks as directly addressing parts of the world where HIV and AIDS infection rates are far higher than in the United States.
“I see this as not breaking any new ground, necessarily,” he said. “I hear the holy father responding to that pastoral concern that’s come from the grass roots as well as bodies of bishops in sub-Sahara Africa.”
Catholic Relief Services, a global humanitarian agency headquartered in the U.S., has also been providing HIV and AIDS care and education for more than two decades. The group has AIDS-related programs in 62 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, spending more than $170 million on the projects in 2009.
As long as official Catholic teaching condemns the use of condoms, the relief agency will follow that guidance, spokesman Michael Hill said.
“Catholic Relief Services follows the teaching of the Catholic Church,” he said. “Our current policy holds that we do not purchase, distribute or promote the use of condoms.”
The pope’s comments in a book interview do not amount to an official teaching, a point conservative Catholics have made repeatedly. They argued that the pope was only noting that by using a condom, a person with HIV is displaying some moral sense about the consequences of his behavior.
“I maintain that nothing new has happened, that the church’s teaching hasn’t changed,” said the Rev. Joseph Fessio of Ignatius Press, the English publisher of the book, in a phone interview from Rome.
“We’re in for a long period of confusion,” said Russell Shaw, a writer for the Catholic publication Our Sunday Visitor and a former spokesman for the U.S. bishops’ conference. “The bishops — and clergy especially — will have to go home now to their own dioceses and, whether they like it or not, start speaking very clearly about what just happened.”
Associated Press writers Ciaran Giles in Madrid, Tales Azzoni in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Joe Mandak in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.
(This version corrects the spelling of San Paulo in contributing line.)