POPE’S REMARKS ON CONDOMS
BY JOHN THAVIS, CNS
POPE BENEDICT’s remark that the distribution of condoms only increases the problem of Aids risked overshadowing the rest of his week-long Africa trip – at least for western media.
He was speaking to journalists aboard his flight to Cameroon on Tuesday, March 17, and was asked whether the Church’s approach to Aids prevention – which focuses primarily on sexual responsibility and rejects condom campaigns – was unrealistic and ineffective.
The Pope, who was speaking in Italian, had time to prepare his answer. Under current practice reporters on papal flights submit questions to the Vatican several days in advance, and a selection is made by the Pope and his advisers.
He replied: “I would say the opposite. I think that the reality that is most effective, the most present and the strongest in the fight against Aids is precisely that of the Catholic Church, with its programmes and its diversity. I think of the Sant’Egidio community, which does so much visibly and invisibly in the fight against Aids ... and of all the sisters at the service of the sick.
“I would say that one cannot overcome this problem of Aids only with money – which is important, but if there is no soul, no people who know how to use it, [money] doesn’t help.
“One cannot overcome the problem with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, they increase the problem. The solution can only be a double one: first, a humanisation of sexuality, that is, a spiritual human renewal that brings with it a new way of behaving with one another; second, a true friendship even and especially with those who suffer, and a willingness to make personal sacrifices and to be with the suffering. And these are factors that help and that result in real and visible progress.
“Therefore I would say this is our double strength – to renew the human being from the inside, to give him spiritual human strength for proper behaviour regarding one’s own body and toward the other person, and the capacity to suffer with the suffering ... I think this is the proper response and the Church is doing this, and so it offers a great and important contribution. I thank all those who are doing this.” The following day Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi returned to the subject of condoms and Aids in a briefing for reporters in Cameroon. He said the Pope’s comments on the plane were in line with the Church’s basic position on Aids, which has never had “excessive or absolute trust in condom distribution” as a way to stop the spread of the disease.
The Church’s approach is focused on teaching sexual responsibility, the spokesman said, and over-emphasis on condoms “does not allow for an adequate concentration of attention on this formation and sense of responsibility”.
The Pope’s words reflected a statement he made to South African bishops in 2005, when he said the Church was at the forefront in the treatment of Aids and the “only fail-safe way” to prevent its spread was found in the Church’s teaching on sexual responsibility.
In saying that condom promotion only increases the problem the Pope appeared to agree with those who have put forward several arguments: that condoms have a failure rate and so are never completely safe; that encouragement of condom use may promote promiscuity and that reliance on condom campaigns has overshadowed more effective means of prevention, namely fidelity and chastity.
According to Italian theologian Franciscan Fr Maurizio Faggioni, who has advised the Vatican on sexual morality, there is another factor in the Pope’s thinking. Fr Faggioni argues that the Pope sees condom campaigns as a question of cultural violence, especially in Africa, where there has never been a “contraceptive mentality”.
Fr Faggioni said the question of whether condom use in some circumstances may be morally licit is a separate issue.
Some Church leaders have argued that a married couple in which one spouse has Aids may reasonably be expected to use condoms to prevent transmission of the disease. A study on the subject was undertaken by the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry and was passed to the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation in 2006, where it has been put on hold.