So, condoms are now okay by the Pope? Far from it

Garry O'Sullivan

One could be forgiven for waking up on Sunday morning and on, hearing the news, believing oneself to have arrived in a parallel universe.

"Pope says condoms are okay" said the news headlines. Yes, the Pope spoke about condoms, but he didn't say they are okay without reservation as some media seem to imply.

So what did the Pope say?

On Sunday, the official Vatican newspaper released excerpts from a book-length interview the Pope gave to a German journalist.

The Pope says that in certain cases a condom can be used where the intent is to prevent the transmission of disease such as HIV/Aids and not to prevent pregnancy.

The Pope uses the example of a male prostitute who uses a condom in order to prevent infection and says that usage in this way could be "a first step in a movement towards a different way, a more humane way, of living sexuality".

So has the Pope changed the Church's teaching on condoms?

No, he hasn't. The Church still teaches that using contraception is wrong and the Pope goes on in the interview -- which will be released in full tomorrow in book form -- Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times -- to give a robust restatement of traditional church teaching on contraception.

So what is new in what the Pope said then?

No previous Pope has spoken so clearly on the use of condoms in the prevention of Aids. The Pope is not reforming or changing Church teaching, but he is clarifying it in an area which has been subject to much disagreement.

The disagreement is whether or not it is permissible to use a condom to prevent disease as this is not using a condom first and foremost as a contraceptive. The case often used is a HIV positive man using a condom in order not to infect his wife.

What is the argument for this?

Some cardinals and theologians have argued that using a condom to stop infection of another evil is a "lesser evil" than using the condom.

What is the argument against?

The condom still acts as a contraception even when used to prevent infection.

What's new?

The Pope has come down to some degree in favour of those who argue that prevention of infecting oneself or others warrants the use of condoms if it is a move towards a greater moral awareness by the user.

Does the Pope think condoms now can be a help in the fight against Aids?

The Pope reflects the consensus among theologians that the intention in using a condom to prevent Aids may be a morally positive move; however, only the "humanisation of sexuality (fidelity, monogamy, chastity) will end the Aids virus".

Does the Pope defend the Church's record on fighting Aids?

Yes. He says: "The Church does more than anyone else" assisting people with prevention, education, help, counsel and is "second to none" in treating so many Aids sufferers.

Didn't he say on his trip to Africa in 2008 that the problem of Aids would not be solved by distributing condoms?

Yes. He still says much more needs to be done and that condoms are not the answer. He says the Church must stand by people, helping them both before and after they contract the virus.

Will Church agencies and programmes now distribute condoms?

This is not clear. The Pope says that "people can get condoms when they want them anyhow". But critics argue that because the Church runs so many dispensaries in remote areas, people are deprived of condom access.

So is the Pope in favour of the ABC programme ("Abstain, be faithful, and if you can't, use a condom"?

No. He calls it a "banalisation of sexuality".

Is this comment by the Pope a major upset and surprise for Catholics?

Not really, if they have been following the discussions on it since 2006, when the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Health Care Pastoral examined the question of condoms for married couples where one is HIV-positive.