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Europe greets Pope Benedict's condom remarks as 'evolution, not revolution'

Pope Benedict's view that there might be rare cases where condom use is acceptable comes at a time when the Catholic church's image in Europe has been battered by child abuse scandals.

By Staff writer / November 22, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives to celebrate a mass in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Nov. 21.

Tony Gentile/Reuters

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Paris

Vatican officials are insisting that Pope Benedict’s new remarks on condoms are not a change in church teaching on contraception. But initial reaction in Europe and among Roman Catholics here is that the first papal acknowledgment of condom use is an important “evolution of theology” and a “liberation” from a church position that many of the Catholic faithful struggle to defend.

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Secular Europe is a region that Pope Benedict views as critical to rebuilding Roman Catholicism. The pope’s notice of acceptable condom use in some cases, such as by male prostitutes, may be a technically narrow shift; the pope also stated that “fixating on condoms is a trivialization of sexuality.”

But given the Vatican's more conservative direction under Benedict, this is being read as a shift from negative to positive language on matters related to sexual behavior – at a time when the public image of the church in Europe is badly damaged over priestly child abuse scandals in Ireland, Germany, and Belgium.

Catholic bishops in Europe noted Monday that the previous pontiff, John Paul II, had never spoken of condoms, and praised Benedict for his courage in doing so.

“It is an evolution, not a revolution,” argues Xavier Lacroix, a theologian at Catholic University in Lyon, France. "I observe a change of vocabulary … using words that belong to a positive realm, not only the typical ‘lesser evil.’ "

Michel Sidibé, director of the United Nations's AIDS program, described it as a “significant and positive step forward.”

No core change?

Yet some grassroots Catholic reform groups say papal comment allowing a man to use a condom in certain odd cases does not address any core change.

“If the pope says you can now wear pink shoes instead of red shoes, the public will be ecstatic,” says Sigrid Grabmeier, spokeswoman for “We are Church,” which was formed in Germany and Austria in protest of severe priestly child abuse cases and which advocates equality for women in the church. “But this step, or idea of a step, is not a change in attitude or in the mind of the church.”

The pope’s comment comes in a book-length series of interviews by a sympathetic German journalist who did two other books with Benedict when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Before becoming pope, he was responsible for church discipline as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “Light of the World,” the book’s title, attempts to humanize Benedict, a pontiff known both for brilliance and aloofness following a year of scandal that threatens his legacy.

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