In a victory for reform-minded critics of the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI has now reversed the Catholic Church's long-standing position with regard to the use of condoms to combat the spread of the HIV virus.
The Vatican's "health minister" Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, who is close to the pope, told the Rome-based newspaper La Repubblica "It was the pope who took the initiative over this very sensitive and difficult issue." Barragan, who is Mexican, added that the Vatican is preparing a document on condom use, but declined to reveal its details.
Opposition to artificial birth control
In the past, the Catholic Church has steadfastly opposed all means of artificial contraception, even the use of condoms for those infected with the HIV virus. HIV is widespread in the developing world, where the church is active on the grassroots level. It has always maintained the position that birth control should be exercised by abstinence or natural means, such as the rhythm method, which has been mocked by critics as "Vatican roulette."
Up to now, the church had also condemned the use of condoms for married couples, even when one of them is infected with the AIDS virus. HIV can be spread not only through sexual contact, but through the exchange of body fluids, such as blood transfusions. In developing countries, the use of condoms protects against other highly contagious diseases, such as hepatitis, as well.
Condom use to prevent spread of AIDS
Only last week Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the highly influential former Archbishop of Milan, set a precedent by making a public appeal to at least permit condom use to prevent the transmission of deadly viruses.
"We need to do everything possible to combat AIDS. Under certain conditions, the use of condoms is necessary. Those who are afflicted have an obligation to protect the other partner," he told the Italian weekly newsmagazine L'Espresso. At the same time, he emphasized that this was not a green light for the church to actively start distributing condoms.
Softening of Pope's "Rottweiler" image
Cardinal Martini, a Jesuit, is considered a moderate in the conclave that elected the then former Joseph Ratzinger from Germany as Pope last year following the death of John Paul II. Ratzinger, whom critics have dubbed "God's Rottweiler," was a protégé of the late pope. John Paul II took hard-line positions on the role of women in the Catholic Church and the treatment of homosexuals, as well as the condemnation of artificial birth control.
Though many German Catholics take pride that the pope is a fellow countryman, the reaction towards the pontiff has been mixed from progressive Catholics. However the easing of the church's absolutist position on the use of artificial means of birth control suggests Pope Benedict XVI could bring the church more in line with social realities and reformist views.