Pope's surprise condom remarks fuel debate

Pope Benedict XVI (20/11/10) The Pope's comments on condoms mark a shift in the Vatican's traditional stance

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Pope Benedict's statement on the use of condoms appears to be a relaxation of a hitherto uncompromising Vatican ban on the use of artificial contraception.

A crack has opened in the Church's ban on contraception because of the Aids epidemic, particularly in Africa.

Catholic moral theologians have been discussing for years the theory of what the Pope has now openly expressed in terms of accepting the lesser of two evils.

This means accepting the fact that condom use by prostitutes does lessen the risk of infection for both men and women.

There is some confusion about whether the Pope was referring to female or male prostitutes in his remarks - the word he used in the Italian version is ambiguous, but in English he talks about male prostitutes.

Unexpected

News of Pope Benedict's headline-grabbing remarks, first published in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, on the acceptability of condom use in certain cases dropped at a completely unexpected moment at the Vatican on Saturday evening.

The Pope's remarks caught everyone by surprise.

Several thousand people were milling around reception rooms inside and outside the apostolic palace greeting 24 new cardinals to whom Pope Benedict had given their red hats earlier in the day.

It is an ancient tradition that the Pope throws open part of his palace inside the Vatican for two hours during the afternoon following a consistory to enable relatives and friends of the new princes of the Roman Catholic Church to exchange a few words with them as they stand proudly in their brand new red robes of office.

Start Quote

In my opinion someone on the other side of the Tiber has made a big error”

End Quote Andrea Torielli Italian blogger

The news was so unexpected that seasoned Vatican observers are asking themselves whether there has not been yet another gaffe by Pope Benedict's public relations advisers.

The words of the Pope were published in the form of selected extracts without any special fanfare in an expanded weekend edition of the Vatican newspaper.

Almost the entire newspaper was devoted to the consistory and to the gathering of old and new cardinals of the Church from around the world who had been summoned to Rome for a closed door meeting the previous day.

The brief papal reference to condoms was down column on the back page of the newspaper.

Accident or design?

The cardinals are still here in Rome. Many of them are reading the extensive Italian newspaper coverage of the Pope's remarks with some surprise.

It had been agreed with the publishers of the new book of intimate thoughts of Pope Benedict entitled The Light of the World: the Pope, The Church and Signs of The Times by the German Catholic journalist Peter Seewald, that the text would be released only at a book launch scheduled to be held at the Vatican Press Office on Tuesday.

Was the breaking of the embargo of the text on the very day when the headquarters of the Catholic Church was in festive mood in the middle of celebrating the consistory a deliberate act, or was it a mistake on the part of Vatican?

Andrea Torielli, a well-informed Italian blogger on the Vatican has no doubt that it was the latter.

"Yesterday," he writes, "was not an ordinary day at the Vatican. It was the day on which Benedict XVI celebrated his third consistory. He gave a beautiful, extraordinary homily, drawing attention once more to the fact that the ministry of the Church is one of service, not of power, and that authority is given in order that cardinals may serve, not as a prize, or to enable them to satisfy their ambitions... The Osservatore Romano is not a tabloid, nor a newspaper that seeks scoops. In my opinion someone on the other side of the Tiber has made a big error."

Among other interesting topics that Pope Benedict touches on in the extracts of his long interview with Peter Seewald, are papal infallibility - he says he cannot continue to produce "infallible statements"; his attitude towards resignation - he would resign if he felt he lacked the physical and psychological strength to continue in office; and his "enormous shock" at the extent of the paedophile priest crisis which has shaken the Church in recent years.

But it is the Pope's completely unprecedented remarks on condoms and prostitutes that have set tongues wagging not only inside the Vatican, but all over the world.

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