Has Benedict XVI changed Church teaching on condoms?

Pope Benedict XVI's comments on Aids and condoms have lit up the headlines (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

The Pope’s statement that condom use is acceptable “in certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection” has lit up the headlines. But put the lights out: nothing has changed.

The prohibition on artificial contraception in the two major documents – Casti Connubii (1930) and Humanae Vitae (1968) – and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, speak only in terms of marriage. No ruling on contraception outside marriage, homosexual or heterosexual, has been made, nor has there been any particular reason why the Magisterium should make one.

The most that the Pope has done is to confirm what is already well established: that condoms, used properly and invariably, give a high rate of protection. This perhaps clarifies his former remarks that tackling epidemic Aids through condom programmes has not historically been effective and may contribute to the problem. In many cultures, condoms are very unpopular and promiscuity is common. However the condom promotions may well be giving a false sense of security and thus increasing this promiscuity.

Had the Pope given as an example a serodiscordant married couple, instead of a prostitute (whether male or female is not currently clear) he would really have said something dramatic; and answered a question which many senior churchmen have asked and the Vatican has declined to answer.

When asked whether in fact the Church is not opposed in principle to the use of condoms, he replies, “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 humane way, of living sexuality.”

This may be a hint, though carefully no more than a hint, that he approves of the step by step pastoral approach, which is already commonly used. However, a warning against taking this approach too far is implicit in John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio (1981): “They cannot however look on the law as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy. And so what is known as ‘the law of gradualness’ or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with ‘gradualness of the law,’ as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations.”