Vatican expands on pope's condom remarks

By William Wan and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 23, 2010; 4:18 PM

The Vatican on Tuesday appeared to open the door to a broader discussion about the acceptable uses of condoms, saying people in "a relationship" can use them in cases when one partner has a life-threatening and transmittable illness.

The comments by a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, came three days after the publication of a book about Pope Benedict XVI that quoted him as saying prostitutes could use condoms to keep from infecting others with HIV.

Since then, global health workers and Catholic theologians have been debating whether the comments could apply to infected people who are married or could eventually lead to greater church acceptance of birth control.

In the past, official church teaching has banned condom use under all circumstances.

Yet even as AIDS officials and some theologians were heralding the pope's comments as seismic, they remained unclear.

Speaking at a news conference at the Vatican, Lombardi told reporters that he had asked the pope whether he intended in the book to refer only to male prostitutes - a question that came up because of different translations of the book and apparently confused pronouns. Benedict replied that it really doesn't matter, and that the important thing was that the person in question takes into consideration the life of the other, Lombardi said, according to the Associated Press.

"I personally asked the pope if there was a serious, important problem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine," Lombardi said. "He told me 'no.' . . . It's the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship.

"This is if you're a man, a woman or a transsexual. We're at the same point. The point is it's a first step of taking responsibility, of avoiding passing a grave risk onto another," Lombardi said.

A transcript of Tuesday's comments was not immediately available, and Lombardi appeared to be answering questions specifically about the prostitute example. But some health advocates and liberal Catholics have seized on the shift in the church's words as potentially seismic.

"Until now, the church has never condoned the use of condoms to prevent sexually transmitted disease," said Sister Carol Taylor, a clinical nurse and bioethics researcher at Georgetown University. "This on its own doesn't change anything, but it could open the door and lead to other exceptions to the church's stance on condoms."

Some AIDS prevention activists have seized on the pope's comments as a reversal, however subtle. But more traditional types, as well as the Vatican spokesman, emphasized Monday that the pope spoke about only one narrow situation. Excerpts of the book, by a German journalist, were released over the weekend.

In the interview, Benedict said there are situations in which condoms may be acceptable, using as an example a prostitute who wants to lessen the risk of spreading AIDS. Different translations of the excerpts confused the question of whether the pope was speaking only of male prostitutes, for whom contraception and pregnancy are not relevant.

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