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Vatican clarifies stance on condoms

November 23, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Rome, Published: November 23 2010 

The Vatican has clarified Pope Benedict’s new stance on the use of condoms to help prevent the transmission of the Aids virus, explaining the pontiff believed that all those infected with the disease were morally justified in taking precautions to protect their partners.

Aids campaigners greeted what they saw as a significant shift in the Pope’s personal views that could lead to a landmark change in Roman Catholic policy.

Caritas, a global network of Catholic charities, said the Pope had “opened a debate” and that the bishops’ conferences that set policies for member organisations needed to work out “whether this means a huge shift” that could lead to Catholic aid workers openly distributing condoms to HIV/Aids sufferers.

The 83-year-old German pontiff opened the controversy in a new book, telling the author of Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Sign of the Times, published on Tuesday, that use of condoms by Aids victims could be morally justified. In excerpts of the book released at the weekend, he cited the example of a male prostitute.

Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said the Pope’s intention was to go beyond that. “I asked the Pope personally if there was a serious distinction in the choice of male instead of female and he said ‘no’,” Father Lombardi said. “If it is a man, a woman or a transsexual who does it, we are always at the same point, which is the first step in responsibly avoiding passing on a grave risk to the other.”

Although Vatican teaching, as laid out in a 1968 encyclical, prohibits the use of contraception, the Vatican has never formally laid out guidance on the use of condoms to prevent the spread of disease. However, the Pope, on a visit to Africa last year, triggered international uproar by claiming that condoms exacerbated the Aids crisis.

Patrick Nicholson, a spokesman for Caritas which is the world’s second-largest non-government aid federation after the Red Cross, pointed out that bishops’ conferences in southern Africa in 2000 and Chad in 2002 had already issued pastoral letters advising church workers to follow their conscience in advising married couples where one person was infected with the Aids virus.

While this was not seen as a green light for Catholic charities to distribute condoms – which some already do discreetly – the letters were seen as condoning their use.

Vatican observers said the Pope’s apparent change of heart would open a “Pandora’s Box” which could be fiercely opposed by some conservative bishops.

UNAids issued a report on Tuesday saying that the global incidence of HIV infection fell by 19 per cent between 1999 and 2009. It said the adoption of safer sexual practices by the young and greater availability of condoms in countries most at risk were important factors in the fall.

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