Pope Benedict XVI’s willingness to declare condom use the lesser evil compared to spreading HIV is, I’m starting to think, a remarkable perhaps even historic change. Yesterday, I was less convinced. It seemed perhaps a misunderstanding, or a botched or ambiguous translation of the Pope’s words. But today the Pope’s spokesman has reaffirmed the Pope’s point and broadened it.The Roman Catholic church’s medieval views on sexuality make it difficult to recognize when the church makes real progress in sloughing off old thinking in light of “new” facts. I say “new” because by modern standards the scourge of AIDS, especially in Africa, is not new news. But I’ve found it helpful to view the 2,000-year-old church on something approaching a geologic time scale. Through that prism, a 30-year-old epidemic is a relatively recent development. That’s not a justification, but it’s at least a partial explanation for why the church can be so slow to react to the moral challenges of the day.
Benedict’s declaration remains pinched and constrained — or depending on your point of view, perhaps, reserved and circumspect — but it no longer seems accidental. His initial remarks, in a German book about the German Pope that was excerpted in Italian by the official Vatican newspaper, were seemingly limited to male prostitutes. But the Vatican spokesman, after talking to the Pope, told the press that Benedict said he wasn’t restricting his remarks to men: “It’s the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship.”