Pope: Birth control a 'lesser evil' than HIV

The pope has approved using condoms even if they mean avoiding a possible pregnancy, providing they stop the transmission of HIV to a partner.

The Vatican today said the was condom a lesser evil in such a case, signalling a seismic shift in papal teaching as it further explained the pope’s comments.

The Vatican has long been criticised for its patent opposition to condom use, particularly in Africa where Aids is rampant.

But the latest interpretation of the pope’s comments about condoms and HIV essentially means the Roman Catholic Church is acknowledging that its long-held, anti-birth control stance against condoms does not justify putting someone’s life at risk.

“This is a game-changer,” said the Rev. Jim Martin, a Jesuit editor and writer.

The pope said in a book that condom use by people such as male prostitutes was a lesser evil since it indicated they were moving toward a more moral and responsible sexuality by aiming to protect their partner from a deadly infection.

His comments implied that he was referring primarily to homosexual sex, when condoms are not being used as a form of contraception.

Questions arose immediately about the his intent because the Italian translation of the book used the feminine for prostitute, whereas the original German used the masculine.

Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said today that he asked the pope whether he intended his comments to only apply to male prostitutes. He replied that it really did not matter, that the important thing was the person in question took into consideration the life of the other.

``I personally asked the pope if there was a serious, important problem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine,'' Mr Lombardi said. ``He told me no. The problem is this ... 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,” Mr Lombardi said.

The clarification is significant.

UNAids estimates that 22.4 million people in Africa are infected with HIV, and that 54% – or 12.1 million – are women. Heterosexual transmission of HIV and multiple, heterosexual partners are believed to be a major cause of the high infection rates in Africa.

The pope angered the United Nations, European governments and Aids activists when, en route to Africa in 2009, he told reporters that the Aids problem on the continent couldn’t be resolved by distributing condoms. “On the contrary, it increases the problem,” he said then.

In Africa on today Aids activists, clerics and ordinary Africans alike applauded the pope’s revised comments.

“I say hurrah for Pope Benedict,” exclaimed Linda-Gail Bekker, chief executive of South Africa’s Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation. She said the pope’s statement may prompt many people to “adopt a simple lifestyle strategy to protect themselves.”

In Sierra Leone, the director of the National Aids Secretariat predicted condom use would now increase, lowering the number of new infections.

“Once the pope has made a pronouncement, his priests will be in the forefront in advocating for their perceived use of condoms,” said the official, Dr. Brima Kargbo.

Mr Lombardi said that the pope knew full well that his new comments would provoke debate and discussion. Conservative Catholics have been trying to minimise the scope of what he said since the weekend.

Mr Lombardi praised the pope for his “courage” in confronting the problem.

“He did it because he believed that it was a serious, important question in the world of today,” Mr Lombardi said, adding that the pope wanted to give his perspective on the need for a greater humanised, responsible sexuality.

In the book, the pope was not justifying or condoning gay sex or heterosexual sex outside of a marriage. Elsewhere in it, he reaffirms the Vatican opposition to homosexual acts and artificial contraception and reaffirms the inviolability of marriage between man and woman.

But by broadening the condom comments to also apply to women, the pope is saying that condom use is a lesser evil than passing HIV onto a partner even when pregnancy is possible.

“By acknowledging that condoms help prevent spread of HIV between people in sexual relationships, the pope has completely changed the Catholic discussion on condoms,” Mr Martin said.

“We’re not just talking about an encounter between two men, which has little to do with procreation. We’re now introducing relationships that could lead to childbirth,” he said.

While the lesser evil concept has long been a tenet of moral theology, the pope’s book “Light of the World” – a series of interviews with a German journalist – marked the first time a pope had ever publicly applied the theory to condom use as a way to fight HIV transmission.

Individual bishops and theologians have applied that theory to the condom HIV issue, but it had previously been rejected at the highest levels of the Vatican, Mr Martin said.

“He is affirming that the use of condoms can prevent the spread of HIV within sexual relationships, which is brand new for the Vatican at that level to be speaking about,” he said.

Monsignor Jacques Suaudeau, an expert at the Vatican’s bioethics advisory board, said the pope was articulating the idea in church teaching – long practised by some church officials with regards to condoms – that there are degrees of evil.

“Contraception is not the worst evil. The church does not see it as good, but the church does not see it as the worst,” he said. “Abortion is far worse. Passing on HIV is criminal. That is absolute irresponsibility.”

He said the pope broached the topic because questions about condoms and Aids persisted.

“This pope gave this interview. He was not foolish. It was intentional. He thought that this was a way of bringing up many questions. Why? Because it’s true that the church sometimes has not been too clear,” Mr Suaudeau said.

Mr Lombardi said the pope did not use the technical terminology of “lesser evil” in his comments because he wanted his words to be understood by the general public. Vatican officials, however, said that was what he meant.

“The contribution the pope wanted to give is not a technical discussion with scientific language on moral problems,” Mr Lombardi said. “This is not the job of a book like of this type.”

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