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Theologians debate meaning of pope's condom remark

By Michelle Boorstein and William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; A04

The Vatican appeared to open the door Tuesday to a broader discussion about the acceptable uses of condoms, saying people in sexual relationships can use them as a last resort when one partner is infected with HIV.

The comments from the Vatican's spokesman came three days after excerpts of a book about Pope Benedict XVI quoted him as saying that prostitutes could use condoms to keep from spreading the virus. The book excerpts and the Vatican's efforts to clarify their meaning have triggered global debate among Catholic theologians, with some saying that the pope had made a major shift on contraception and others saying he was simply restating the importance of protecting human life.

In the past, official church teaching has banned condom use in all circumstances. A year ago, Benedict infuriated many AIDS experts by saying condoms were exacerbating the HIV problem, not helping to fight the disease.

Speaking at a Vatican news conference Tuesday, the Rev. Federico 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 ambiguous pronouns. Benedict replied that gender 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.

"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.

The brouhaha over the pope's remarks is hardly the first time the Catholic Church has made news - and sowed confusion - on the subject of birth control.

Church officials' arguments about contraception have shifted over the decades, depending on the technology being discussed and the pope at the helm.

In the 1960s, a Vatican commission studied the subject for years before recommending that the prohibition on artificial contraception be relaxed - a suggestion that was ultimately ignored. In 1987, a committee of U.S. bishops writing about how to deal with HIV said that "because we live in a pluralistic society" and not everyone limits sex to marriage, public education "could include accurate information about prophylactic devices or other practices" to prevent AIDS.

Some popes have argued that contraception is wrong because it is contrary to basic reproductive biology, while others have focused more on love and emotional aspects.

Peter Steinfels, a Catholic journalist and co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, said Benedict's writings about contraception are notably different - and more subtle - than the arguments laid out in Humanae Vitae, the seminal papal paper by Pope Paul XI that reaffirmed a total ban on artificial forms of birth control.

Although Humanae Vitae emphasized that "each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life," Benedict has focused in some less-publicized interviews on the value of children and the intrusion of technology into sexuality, Steinfels said.

"I think his teaching about this is more flexible and more focused on the question of someone's overall mental and spiritual outlook," he said.

Papal comments on birth control began in the early 20th century, spurred partly by the emergence of new methods and also by the decision of the Anglican Church to allow exceptions to its no-contraception rule and the subsequent acceptance of contraception by other Protestant denominations.

Opposition to birth control became an important marker of Catholic identity in the United States in particular, church historians said.

Church statements against early technologies, such as spermicides, focused on the problem with creating a physical barrier to fertilization, but that argument shifted with the introduction of birth control pills.

Debate about contraception raged at the church's highest levels in the 1960s, and the Vatican's commission recommendation that Pope Paul relax the ban leaked to a Catholic public open to modernization and change.

More than 600 theologians signed a protest against the pope's decision to reject the committee's recommendation.

"You saw two sides emerge, each demonizing the other," said Dennis M. Doyle, a church historian at University of Dayton. "For one group, it became the litmus test for orthodoxy. For the other, it was the litmus test in their minds for whether you were crazy and overboard."

boorsteinm@washpost.com wanw@washpost.com

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