IF Pope Benedict has given a qualified endorsement -- and Catholic sources are keen to underline that it is very qualified indeed -- to the use of the condom in certain exceptional circumstances, then it is only a step towards common sense.
Even those who have reservations about artificial birth control have argued that where a condom is a remedy against disease, it can be seen as a legitimate aspect of health care.
Any parent would surely answer the following question in the affirmative: if your young, single son or daughter were going off to Africa for a couple of years, would it be wise for them to include condoms in their backpacks? A parent might hope that their child does not embark on reckless or promiscuous relationships, but human nature is human nature, and a rubber prophylactic is surely preferable to contracting, or spreading, a deadly virus.
The argument in favour of the common condom would seem an open-and-shut case: it's simple, it's cheap, it prevents unwanted pregnancy and can halt the spread of disease.
Here it gets a bit more complicated, and I suppose I can speak with some kind of authority on the matter, since hardly a month goes by without some media or social history student contacting me about the notorious "condom train" of 1971 (when I was among a group of feminists who brought condoms back from Belfast in a deliberate stunt to flout the 1935 law that still prohibited "birth control artifacts").
The 1935 law was outdated, although the act did not preclude other forms of contraception, including the infinitely more influential contraceptive pill, from everyday use.
The novelist Anne Enright has argued that contraception was banned in Ireland until the 1980s: this is silly and historically inaccurate. In effect, only the condom and the diaphragm fell under the prohibition.
Condoms certainly needed to be liberated from an archaic law; but that doesn't mean they represent some form of sexual or relationship perfection, as is sometimes supposed.
When the scandal broke about Bishop Casey fathering a child with Annie Murphy, it was widely remarked that "the whole problem could have been avoided by the availability of a 50p condom". No it couldn't, because people don't always want to use condoms, and particularly people who have a hope (as Ms Murphy subsequently disclosed) that they might like to conceive a child.
Some men don't like condoms because they feel it reduces sensitivity and some women don't like condoms because they feel that they represent a form of male power -- it is the man who is making the choice, or it is the man who is "withholding" something essential of himself. The pioneering Marie Stopes never endorsed the condom -- she thought that men's "secretions" were empowering for women.
In my own married life, I tried to sabotage condom use by my husband. I'd have liked another child: he would not. A highly experienced birth control doctor showed me how to pierce minute holes in condoms so as to allow the sperm to get through. It didn't work.
The condom has been practically declared sacred as a means to halt population growth and HIV. The Catholic Church has been accused of the "murder" of untold millions for not endorsing condom use in the Third World, although the picture is much more complex. There are many other routes to advancing sexual health including the education of women and the active discouragement of such brutal tribal practices as forcing AIDS widows to sleep with their dead husband's brothers.
There's nothing wrong with advocating responsibility and fidelity in relationships. The Protestant Puritans advanced marriage in the 17th Century because they were so alarmed by the spread of syphilis. Staying faithful, they concluded, was the best prophylactic.
Obviously, the advice -- "If you can't be good, be careful" -- is a practical rider to any idealistic code. And if Pope Benedict is moving towards some version of this, most people will, I think, see that as sensible and compassionate.
But let's not be dishonest: The condom may be cheap, practical and an aid in fighting disease; but that doesn't make it romantic, and for some people, separating the rapture of skin-to-skin union with a piece of vulcanised rubber will always be repulsively artificial.