World AIDS Day 2010: France's Carla Bruni lauds pope for condom comments

On World AIDS Day, French first lady Carla Bruni says she's 'grateful' for Pope Benedict XVI's condom statements, which are giving the Roman Catholic Church some positive attention following its devastating sex scandals.

Benoit Tessier/Reuters
France's First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy speaks during a news conference for World AIDS Day at the Marigny hotel in Paris on Dec. 1.

France’s first lady Carla Bruni not only agrees with Pope Benedict XVI's new statements on condom use, she is “astonished, surprised, and grateful.”

Ms. Bruni lauded Pope Benedict on World AIDS Day after the pontiff last month said using condoms was acceptable in cases that risked the spread of disease.

"A certain number of African countries are Christian and listen a lot to the word of the pope. I think that this is a giant step toward something very new,” said Bruni, an artist and former fashion model who is married to French President Nicolas Sarkozy and works as an AIDS awareness ambassador for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.

The celebrity endorsement is the latest example of positive headlines for the Vatican in a year of devastating child abuse scandals. Moreover, despite controversy in and out of the Roman Catholic Church over the pope’s remarks (he used a prostitute as an example of condom use), it's further evidence that his comments are being popularly read as an important shift on a deeply unpopular teaching.

Last year, Bruni offered blistering criticism of the pope, who said while on a trip to Africa that condoms were not a solution to the Continent's devastating AIDS crisis. He also said that their use could worsen the problem.

Yet in a book of interviews with German Catholic writer Peter Seewald released last month, the pope called condom use by prostitutes “a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility….”

The Vatican insists the pope’s comments do not change basic church teaching against condoms as a form of contraception and dehumanization of sexual relations. Yet Federico Lombardi, head of the Vatican office of communications, has stressed the pope's bravery as the first pontiff to publicly talk about condoms.

Mr. Lomabardi stated the pope’s position this way: “… If you’re a man, a woman, or a transsexual…. The point is it’s a first step of taking responsibility, of avoiding passing a grave risk onto another.”

The pope's book-length interview, “Light of the World,” released Nov. 23 in Italy and Germany, has led to a deluge of analysis and reporting. Journals and columns promise “the real” meaning of the pope's condom comments (for some it means nothing; for others it is revelatory). Bishops have debated doctrine, bioethics, and morality; some conservative Catholics worry if the pope has indulged in the “cultural relativism” that he has long fought against.

Still other voices argue the scholar-pope – the shy, self-sequestering German whose best friends are Aquinas and Augustine – has done a theological "Nixon in China." In this view, the conservative pope put out an informal new position on condoms – jumping over church doctrinal apparatus in a way that may be irreversible – that suggests protection is important and has a place.

William Saletan in Slate offers that: “This isn't an endorsement of condoms. It's more than that. It's an explication of the morality of condom use. It's an analysis of how prophylactic sexual conduct can honor the principles – responsibility, care for one's partner, enduring moral standards….”

Pope biographer David Gibson argued in the Sunday New York Times that “Benedict has clearly changed course.”

Media analysts and some liberal Catholic thinkers argue that what makes the new papal direction most comprehensible is that, intentionally or not, it does what all successful politics does in time of crisis: It changes the subject.

In the midst of a global scandal of sexual deviance involving priests and children that terrifically damaged the church’s image and possibly the pope's legacy, the main Vatican topic for weeks has been a message that much of the world has wanted to hear.

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