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AIDS Issue Pushes the Vatican To Reevaluate Ban on Condoms

By Ian Fisher


Even at the Vatican, not all sacred beliefs are absolute: Thou shalt not kill, but war can be just. Now, behind the quiet walls, a clash is shaping up involving two poles of near certainty: the church’s long-held ban on condoms and its advocacy of human life.

The issue is AIDS. Church officials recently confirmed that Pope Benedict XVI had requested a report on whether it might be acceptable for Catholics to use condoms in one narrow circumstance: to protect life inside a marriage when one partner is infected with HIV or is sick with AIDS.

Whatever the pope ultimately decides, church officials and other experts broadly agree that it is remarkable that so delicate an issue is being taken up. But they also agree that such an inquiry is logical, and particularly significant from this pope, who was Pope John Paul II’s strict enforcer of church doctrine.

“In some ways, maybe he has got the greatest capacity to do it because there is no doubt about his orthodoxy,” said the Rev. Jon Fuller, a Jesuit physician who runs an AIDS clinic at the Boston Medical Center.

The issue has surfaced repeatedly as one of the most complicated and delicate facing the church. For years, some influential cardinals and theologians have argued for a change for couples affected by AIDS in the name of protecting life, while others have fiercely attacked the possibility as demoting the church’s long advocacy of abstinence and marital fidelity to fight the disease.

The news broke just after Benedict celebrated his first anniversary as pope, a relatively quiet year with few concrete papal acts. But he devoted his first encyclical to love, specifically between a man and a woman inside of marriage.

Indeed, with regard to condoms, the only change apparently being considered is in the specific case of married couples. But any change, however narrow, would be unpopular with conservative Catholics, some of whom have already expressed disappointment that Benedict has displayed a softer face now as defender of the faith than he did when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the papal adviser.

“It’s just hard to imagine that any pope — and this pope — would change the teaching,” said Austin Ruse, president of the Culture of Life Foundation, a Catholic-oriented advocacy group based in Washington that opposes abortion and contraception.

It is too soon to know where the pope is heading. Far less contentious issues can take years to inch through the Vatican’s nexus of belief and bureaucracy, prayer and politics.

Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, the pope’s top aide on health care issues, and other Vatican officials declined requests last week for interviews about the subject, and the news reports have been contradictory, except to confirm that the pope has asked for such a review.

Lozano Barragan was quoted in a daily newspaper, La Repubblica, as saying Benedict made the request two months ago, as part of a broader examination of bioethical issues.