Opinion

Pope's shuffle thin end of a long wedge

Stephen Bates

When Pope Benedict XVI sat down with a German journalist, he probably never imagined that his cautious remarks about condoms would spark excitement.

When Pope Benedict XVI sat down with German journalist Peter Seewald at the papacy’s summer residence a few months ago, he probably never imagined that his cautious remarks about condoms would spark international excitement. He appears to be surprised his ruminations should be noticed.

Benedict reiterated the Catholic Church’s longstanding opposition to artificial birth control, which remains a grave sin. But some Catholic theologians and even several cardinals have argued, in recent years, that using a condom to prevent a greater evil, the passing on of a lethal virus, may be permissible.

It is the implication of his statement - and the fact that the pope made it himself - that changes things. “In certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, [condom use] can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane, sexuality,” he said.

“There may be justified individual cases, for example, when a male prostitute uses a condom,” he added.

For more than 40 years the church has tied itself in rhetorical knots to justify the encyclical Humanae Vitae of 1968, in which Pope Paul VI overturned the advice of his own papal commission and restated the church’s opposition to any artificial birth control.

Now, suddenly and maybe grudgingly, Benedict has acknowledged the weight of pragmatic advice. He even seems to recognise, by the term “male prostitute”, that people who in his terms should not be having sex do so and therefore need protection.

Welcome—marginally—to the real world. The church’s position on sex has long contained doses of hypocrisy.

A recent American survey found that 40% of women seeking abortions were Catholic (and a further 40% belonged to other religious groups).

These proportions have probably altered little, in spite of all the condemnation, since the mid-19th century, when one in six pregnancies in the United States was thought to have been aborted.

Even the rhythm method, or “natural family planning”, as the church calls it, is a form of birth control, in that it attempts to avoid procreation.

Perhaps lapsed Catholics like me should welcome the pope’s shuffle. At least it starts to undermine one of the Vatican’s least intellectually coherent positions and may be the thin end of a very long wedge. If this can change, what else might follow, if not under this ageing pontiff then under his successor?

We already have some married priests, converted from Anglicanism. What if the next pope, in response to a divine revelation to answer the shortage of vocations, decided that women could be ordained too? Where would Church of England ­refugees be then?—Guardian News & Media 2010

Stephen Bates is a former Guardian religious affairs correspondent

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