Pope Benedict XVI’s comments on condoms as a means of HIV/AIDS prevention have caused a great deal of debate around the world — and much of it confused, according to many leading Catholic Church commentators.
The problem, they say, is not that the Pope’s words might appear perplexing or a break with church teaching (they don't), but that they have been misinterpreted, either wilfully or unintentionally, by large parts of the mainstream media.
The Vatican also has come under fire and, in particular, its semi-official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, for breaking an embargo and publishing extracts of the book in which the Pope’s comments appear. The excerpts, printed in the paper on Saturday, not only were published out of context but also drew on an unofficial Italian translation that contained a key error on an important Catholic Church doctrinal point , according to moral theologians.
The controversy came about because of comments the Pope makes in “Light of the World,” a book of interviews between Benedict XVI and German journalist Peter Seewald that goes on sale on Wednesday.
Answering a question on AIDS prevention, Benedict XVI pointed out that people can obtain condoms whenever they want, yet the spread of the disease has not been halted, and that even some secular organizations favour condom use only as a last resort in preventing spread of the virus (after abstinence and being faithful).
“More needs to happen,” he says, adding that the “sheer fixation on the condom” implies a “banalization of sexuality,” which he attributes to a widespread attitude “of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves.”
He then refers to an example of a male prostitute who, if he wears a condom, can be taking “a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way to recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.”
But the Pope stresses that “it is not really the way” to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That, he says, “can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.”
Asked whether he means the church does not oppose condom use in principle, the Pope answers: “She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”
The Rev. Robert Gahl, moral philosophy professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, told Newsmax that, given the small number of people who have fallen into this abuse of sexuality, the Pope “is merely suggesting — recommending — that, as a beginning of their steps towards recovery of their morality and sexuality, they at least avoid spreading the contagious disease of HIV/ AIDS.”
He also stressed that the Pope’s comments represent “a development” of the church’s teaching on this issue, yet are still “absolutely in continuity” with the church’s tradition. The Pope’s approach to church teaching “is not static,” he said, but rather is about “applying it to cultural circumstances.”
But this hasn’t stopped liberals and traditionalists, inside and outside the Church, from either exuberantly cheering or vehemently criticizing the Pope for what they see as a break with tradition, despite the fact that the Pope did not alter, amend, or call into question the Church's teaching on contraceptive use. Nor did he say that condom use sometimes is morally acceptable, or back away from his earlier statements on the ineffectiveness of condoms in fighting AIDS.
The Pope’s position on this matter “does not reform or change Church teaching, but reaffirms it, placing it in the perspective of the value and dignity of human sexuality as an expression of love and responsibility,” said Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi in a statement.
But Lombardi’s clarification only came out on a Sunday, almost 24 hours since the story broke and long after many media outlets had misrepresented the Pope’s words.
The confusion, often caused by sensationalist reporting, prompted one former Vatican official to tell Newsmax that it would be better if the Pope would just steer clear of entering into such discussions. “Why is the Pope even commenting on this? What benefit does it bring? It just leaves him open to misrepresentation,” he said.
Another source, also close to the Vatican, said this he believed this was the latest and “worst case example” of a string of gaffes in Vatican communications. Not only did L’Osservatore Romano break the embargo and translate “male prostitute” as a “female prostitute” in its Italian edition, but there also appeared to be no preparations for a coordinated Vatican response to the global reaction that was bound to follow.
Most church commentators, however, have placed most blame on the media for either over-simplifying the Pope’s words and so missing nuances, or whipping up the story to suit their own agendas, one of which is to see the Pope change the church’s teaching on contraception.
Massimo Introvigne, a popular sociologist of religion in Italy, said: “Where is the scandal and the news, if only in the malice of some commentators?” He labeled the media, and the United Nations, which also misread the Pope’s words, as “fools.”
“In this respect, The Associated Press wins the prize,” he said. “In its first English language report (luckily corrected, but still indexed on Yahoo) it had as its headline: “Pope: Male prostitution is OK if you use a condom.’”
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