Vatican Clarifies Pope's Comments On Condoms

Pope Benedict has said that condom-use may be justified in special circumstances, such as that of male prostitutes seeking protection from HIV infection. The pope made the statements during conversations with a German journalist that have been compiled into a book — scheduled for release Tuesday, but excerpted in the Vatican newspaper over the weekend.

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Pope Benedict made headlines around the world over the weekend when he said there were times when the use of condoms might be permitted. This was widely interpreted as a radical shift in church teaching. But on Sunday, the Vatican rushed to clarify what the Pope meant.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is covering this story from Rome. Hi, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: I suppose we should start with the Pope's actual words. What did he say?

POGGIOLI: He said there may be a basis in the case of some individuals as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom where this can be a first assumption of responsibility to not spread infection. Now, this is a very circumscribed and nuanced view. But given the Catholic Church's longstanding ban on the use of any form of artificial contraception, the Pope's remarks were immediately hailed positively in many parts of the world most stricken by AIDS.

INSKEEP: Would you explain where it was that the Pope was speaking in this way?

POGGIOLI: It's a book-length interview with a German journalist Peter Seewald that's due out this week. And the Vatican released some excerpts. But the Vatican caused confusion by issuing differing translations, which made the remarks appear stronger than they were. The Italian version said there may be some justified cases and spoke of a female prostitute.

In any case, the remarks contrast with what Benedict said in March 2009 on a trip to Africa, where he said not only is the distribution of condoms not the answer to the AIDS epidemic, condoms actually increase the problem.

INSKEEP: So, Pope Benedict made this statement, a very carefully nuanced statement suggesting that condoms may be acceptable in some limited circumstances. That's what everyone understood that statement to mean eventually. Is the Vatican standing by that statement now that it's been clarified a little bit?

POGGIOLI: Well, Father Federico Lombardi, the spokesman, issued a statement saying the Pope's remarks are not a revolutionary shift. He stressed Benedict does not regard condoms as a real or moral solution to the problem of AIDS. But he also pointed out that there are numerous prelates who argue similar positions as Benedict in the interview.

For example, many African church officials say condom use is worth considering when one partner in a marriage is HIV positive. And, in fact, the Vatican has never issued an outright ban on the use of condoms to prevent AIDS. But what's striking is that this position comes directly from the Pope and therefore carries greater authority.

INSKEEP: Can I just mention it's rather remarkable that you would have the Pope talking about male prostitutes here and not - you would - people might expect him simply to condemn the practice, to condemn what the person is doing. But he seems to be taking a far more subtle view of this.

POGGIOLI: Well, that's the point. But, again, there's this confusion. In the German and English version, he talks about a male prostitute. The Italian version talks about a female prostitute. And actually what many prelates are saying is the issue about when you have a married couple where one of the partners is HIV positive.

INSKEEP: How did it happen that the Pope put out a book that was basically him being interviewed?

POGGIOLI: Well, it's seen as his attempt at damage control following the many crises and PR failures that have marked his papacy. Other issues he talks about are the clerical sex abuse crisis. Benedict says that victims must be given priority. The church must deal with perpetrators and introduce stricter screening for future priests. Another chapter deals with Benedict's strong defense of his predecessor, the controversial wartime Pope Pius XII, whose silence during the Holocaust has been widely criticized by Jewish leaders and many historians.

Benedict describes Pius as one the great righteous men. And this could be a signal that he intends to go ahead with Pius's beautification and eventual sainthood.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli bringing us the latest on Pope Benedict's remarks. Sylvia, thanks very much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Steve.

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