I have never known anyone who, in the heat of the moment, has suddenly
stopped unwrapping a condom to ponder what Pope Benedict XVI would have to say
about it. Not one.
Nevertheless, he’s the leader of more than a billion faithful, so what the
pope says matters. And while the pontiff could certainly play a part in
convincing more people to use condoms in order to prevent sexually transmitted
diseases, unwanted pregnancies, and even death from AIDS, the Roman Catholic
Church’s official position is this: Condoms are forbidden. The reason? It is
wrong to prevent new human beings from coming into existence.
But to forbid the use of condoms in the age of AIDS is basically to sentence
millions to death. It is that simple. It is that urgent.
Understandably, when the pontiff’s recent comments about condoms — for a
book by the German journalist Peter Seewald, during an unusual six-hour
interview spread across six days — were revealed, they had quite an impact
around the world.
According to Seewald’s book “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the
Signs of the Times,” which was released on Nov. 23, the pope said that condoms
are not a “real or moral” solution to the global AIDS pandemic. However, he
added, “in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses
a condom … this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a
first assumption of responsibility.”
Benedict’s remarks were unprecedented, which is why so many activists
fighting the spread of AIDS were overjoyed about the statements. Thousands upon
thousands of lives could be saved in Africa and Latin America if religious
leaders advised people to use condoms.
The joy was short-lived. Soon after the pope’s comments became news, Federico
Lombardi, a spokesman for the Vatican, quickly sought to dampen activists’
enthusiasm. This was not a radical change in the church’s teachings, Lombardi
explained; the pope’s words were merely “colloquial.” And, further, these
comments would not be part of any encyclical (an official letter to Catholic
bishops) and thus did not represent “a revolutionary turn” for the church. With
regard to its first experience with prophylactics, the Vatican acted with the
confusion and insecurity of a teenager about to have his first sexual experience
— this may be the first time the Vatican’s spokesman ever had to publicly
correct the pope.
The Catholic Church’s anti-condom stance is based on an encyclical written by
Pope Paul VI in 1968, well before the AIDS pandemic made its mark on the world.
But the church won’t adapt to modern times; it won’t adapt to its followers’
needs. Just look at the fact that women are still forbidden from becoming
priests, another example of the church’s being behind the times. This is simply
discrimination, and by a church that preaches equality and therefore should not
treat half the population as inferior. After all, while this tradition that has
guided the church for many centuries, it is archaic and male-centered.
Still, two things leave me hopeful. Regardless of the public correction of
Benedict, the simple fact that the pontiff made statements about condoms is
encouraging. This opens the possibility of a debate about whether the choice to
use, or not use, a condom is a decision that should be made by a couple in their
bedroom, and not the pope in the Vatican. And the discussion that could ensue
might eventually lead to the end of the church’s prohibition.
The second is the fact that Benedict set aside an ancient and arrogant
strategy of papal noncommunication and agreed to be interviewed by a journalist
for six hours. I don’t know whether the pope was given the questions in advance
or what other arrangements were made, but I hope this is the first of many such
interviews. After all, it is urgent that we ask Benedict more questions about
his role in the church’s alleged cover-up of the actions of three pedophile
Catholic priests: Peter Hullermann of Germany; Lawrence Murphy of the United
States; and Marcial Maciel of Mexico. These three men are criminals — the pope
should instead show solidarity with the victims.
So while I am not fully convinced that this marks the beginning of a new era
of openness and honesty for the Catholic Church’s leadership, when a pope opens
a door — even just a crack — the rest of us should push until we see what is
By Jorge Ramos Avalos
© 2010 Jorge Ramos
(October 11, 2010)