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Contraceptive Contradictions

Author: Lee Hudson Teslik
May 4, 2006

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A flap over condom use has turned into the first major policy debate of Benedict XVI's papacy. At stake is whether the Vatican will condone the use of condoms, within a marriage and specifically for health reasons, when one partner is infected with HIV. Last week, church officials confirmed that the pope had requested a report on the issue (CNN). Whatever the report decrees, it will mark Benedict's first attempt to tackle a divisive issue for Roman Catholics, and will be watched closely as a barometer of policy to come. As described in this new CFR Background Q&A, the first year of Benedict's papacy has offered surprises, but few firm indications of which doctrinal changes, if any, the pope might pursue.

Theologically, the condom debate represents an attempt to reconcile the Catholic principle forbidding contraception with the principle that celebrates the sanctity of human life. Influential Vatican figures, including the former archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, have said that when human life is at stake, condom use is "a lesser evil" (Telegraph). The announcement of a forthcoming report sparked talk that a loosening of traditional orthodoxy might be at hand. But TIME magazine cites church insiders who "flatly dismiss" the possibility that condoms would be condoned under any circumstances. Moreover, the cardinal who originally announced that the Vatican would "reconsider" its stance, Javier Lozano Barragan, followed that statement with a more cautious explanation that the report is only a study for internal purposes, and should not be expected to shift policy.

Regardless of its outcome, the condom debate could well furnish a more complete picture of Pope Benedict, whose approach to the papacy, experts say, remains something of an enigma. Many observers have been surprised at Benedict's quiet first year as pope; his prior role as guardian of Catholic orthodoxy might have suggested a more aggressive approach. His first major statement, a January 2006 encyclical letter, commented on love—a topic which theologians say was surprisingly non-controversial, given the pope's writings as a cardinal. ABC News questioned whether "'God's Rottweiler' [had] turned softie?" But others downplay suggestions of a theological shift, saying the pope is simply adjusting to a new position with different—and not strictly doctrinal—responsibilities.

Still, experts say one emphasis of the new pope stands out: Africa. Catholic influence is expanding more rapidly in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world, though its growth has slowed of late, largely in response to the increased popularity of Pentecostal and evangelical Christian groups (New Republic). While higher-ups deny competition with other Christian denominations, many African Catholics, including some aid workers and missionaries, admit to working around official Vatican doctrine, as Nicholas Kristof relates in this New York Times column. With HIV on the rise and Africans eager for any practical solution—and with pressure mounting from pragmatists and moralists alike—it is improbable that the current debate over condoms will be resolved quietly.

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