The Vatican 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 saying some commentators had misunderstood and misrepresented the pope's remarks in a book-length interview 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 that condom use 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."
Respecting the life of another
"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 ahead of the official release date in an excerpt in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano.
The official Italian translation of the original German published in L'Osservatore made two translation errors that fuelled the confusion: It used the word "justified" in the pope's remarks and also used the feminine version of 'prostitute' as opposed to the masculine - an important distinction given that condoms in heterosexual intercourse are 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 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 statement, the Vatican stuck closely to what the Pontiff originally said in the book and stressed that he was not talking about sex between husband and wife or condom use as a means 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.
Pope’s remarks a great relief
Reports of the pope's remarks 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, the church's longstanding opposition to condoms as a form of birth control has drawn fierce criticism given that 54% 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" signalled to many a shift at least in pastoral terms in his thinking.
George Weigel, a conservative Catholic writer who has criticised 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.
"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.
He added that confusion might have been avoided had such a statement been issued sooner "or had L'Osservatore Romano provided this kind of contextualisation for its excerpting of the book."
(Sapa, December 2010)
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