Priest: No Change In Vatican Policy On Condoms

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with the Rev. Joseph Fessio, editor-in-chief of Ignatius Press, which this week published the book Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times. Fessio says the pope's comments about condoms do not mark any shift in Vatican policy, nor do they signal that the pope condones the use of condoms. Rather, Fessio says the pope believes that use of condoms by someone engaging in immoral behavior may signal the beginning of a shift toward a more moral lifestyle.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

To the Vatican now and the uproar over Pope Benedict's views about HIV and condoms. In a new book, the pope addresses the subject and says that use of condoms may be justified to stop AIDS, or at least that's what some people think he said.

The book was intended to clarify the pope's thinking on a number of controversial subjects, but it appears to have done the opposite. And at a news conference in Rome this morning, Vatican officials were struggling to explain what the pope actually said, what he meant and whether any of this represents a shift in official church policy.

Joining us now from Rome is Father Joseph Fessio. He is a Catholic priest and the editor-in-chief of Ignatius Press, which published the pope's book. And welcome.

Father JOSEPH FESSIO (Editor-in-Chief, Ignatius Press): Glad to be here.

KELLY: Now, you were at the news conference this morning where reporters were asking for a clarification as to what Pope Benedict said about condoms. What is the clarification that the Vatican has now provided?

Father FESSIO: Well, Father Lombardi provided a clarification yesterday...

KELLY: This is the spokesman for the Vatican.

Father FESSIO: ...in which he said that the pope has not changed the in-church teaching. He expressed very carefully something about the use of condoms in which the intention might reflect a movement towards a more moral way of life.

What the pope is saying is it's immoral to use condoms under any circumstances. However, if someone is using them because he's trying to prevent disease in his partner, that may be the first stirrings of a moral consciousness which can lead him to a more moral way of life.

KELLY: Are you saying that the pope was perhaps using some sort of sliding scale here? That while not condoning contraception, not condoning homosexuality, he's signaling that they are not the worst evils, and that passing on HIV is worse?

Father FESSIO: He's not giving a scale of evil or good here. But let me give you a pretty simple example. Let's suppose we've got a bunch of muggers who like to use steel pipes when they mug people. But some muggers say, gosh, you know, we don't need to hurt them that badly to rob them. Let's put foam pads on our pipes. Then we'll just stun them for a while, rob them and go away. So if the pope then said, well, yes, I think that using padded pipes is actually a little step in a moral direction there, that doesn't mean he's justifying using padded pipes to mug people. He's just saying, well, they did something terrible, but while they were doing that, they had a little flicker of conscience there that led them in the right direction. That may grow further, so they stop mugging people completely.

KELLY: A lot of the media coverage over the past few days has presented the pope's comments as representing a big shift in the policy of the Roman Catholic Church. It sounds like you don't see it that way.

Father FESSIO: I don't see it that way. The pope doesn't see it that way. And it's not that way. There's no shift here.

KELLY: You know, I guess if the goal of doing a book like this is to communicate clearly and directly, this book does seem to have had the opposite effect. There's a lot of confusion in terms of what the pope said and what he meant.

Father FESSIO: Well, Mary, please don't say this book. You're talking about page 119 of a 220-page book. But you know something? The pope didn't refuse to answer any question that was asked by this journalist. And so he was asked a question on a complex issue, he gave a very carefully weighed and nuanced answer, hard to understand.

But, you know, it's a good thing, Mary Louise. If we didn't have this complication, the world would think, oh, the Catholic Church is unthinkingly opposed to - you know, it's the medieval mentality -they're opposed to condoms and there's no reason for it. Here, the pope shows, look, there's some reflection going on here. This is not just a kneejerk reaction the church has. This is very carefully thought out. Of course, it's hard to understand. But maybe National Public Radio and others can help people understand it by precisely this kind of conversation.

KELLY: Well, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Father FESSIO: You're welcome, Mary Louise.

KELLY: That's Father Joseph Fessio. He is the editor-in-chief of Ignatius Press, which published the pope's book. And we reached him at the BBC Studios in Rome.

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