Closing ranks behind Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday, the Vatican fought back against the widespread international condemnation of the pontiff’s claim – made on his first visit to Africa – that use of condoms was not only ethically wrong but actually exacerbated the Aids crisis.
Earlier this month the church’s decision in Brazil to excommunicate the mother and doctors of a young girl who had an abortion after being sexually abused by her stepfather also drew widespread condemnation.
L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, aimed its first shot at the messenger, accusing the media of reducing the importance of the Pope’s visit to Cameroon and Angola to the sole polemical aspect of how to stop the spread of Aids.
In a front-page editorial it also highlighted the Pope’s dismissal of stories that have betrayed him as lonely and isolated, insisting that he was surrounded by friends.
Avvenire, newspaper of the Italian bishops, dismissed condemnation of the Pope by European ministers and others as “many hasty commentators” who did not understand the depth of his statement that “condoms increase the problems”.
That the Pope – speaking to reporters on his aircraft on his way to Cameroon on Tuesday – reiterated the church’s opposition to all condom use was not surprising. But what led to the international furore and illustrated the absolute rigidity of his position was his claim that giving out condoms actually made the Aids crisis worse.
The Vatican’s efforts at message control was undermined by subtle attempts to tone down the Pope’s remarks on its official website, even as some clerics tried to suggest that the Roman Catholic church should – and in reality does – soften its blanket opposition to condom usage. It appeared on Wednesday that the Vatican – or at least his spokesman and head of media, Father Federico Lombardi – had tried to soften the pontiff’s remarks by quoting him on the website as saying there was a “risk that prophylactics . . . might increase the problem”. It later changed “prophylactics” to “condoms”.
But reporters, as well as Avvenire, quoted the Pope as saying bluntly that condoms did “increase the problem” of Aids, an assertion rejected immediately by the World Health Organisation and other experts.
Secular commentators said the furore further illustrated the German pontiff’s isolation from the real world after his misjudged decision last month to lift the excommunication of a British bishop who had denied the extent of the Holocaust. The Pope later admitted he should have done more research.
The New York Times accused the pope in an editorial of distorting scientific findings HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS, is believed to have infected 33m people, two-thirds of them in Africa.
The Vatican encourages sexual abstinence and fidelity within marriage to fight the “scourge”.
However, within the Church there has long been a debate over whether condoms can be condoned in certain circumstances – where for example one partner of a married couple has the disease. Hans-Jochen Jaschke, auxiliary bishop of Hamburg, was quoted yesterday as saying there should be “no taboo” on the condom issue.
In the real world, Catholic believers and aid workers are not rigid in the dogmatic rejection of contraception. Franco Moretti, director of a periodical on Christian missions in Africa, said what the Pope outlines are ”ideals” but ”the principles have to be adapted to context”.