The Pope's comments on condom use have been hailed by campaigning groups and the liberal media as a breakthrough, a long-overdue recognition of the gap between dogma and reality. But what did he actually say? And, more to the point, what did he actually mean?
Last year, Benedict said that condoms worsened the spread of AIDS and the Vatican did nothing to contradict Cardinal Trujillo who claimed that the virus could permeate condoms. They have consistently preached that abstinence is the only moral defense against HIV/AIDS while millions die around the world.
The Pope's latest message to the world was part of an interview with German Catholic journalist Peter Seewald for a new book, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times.
It appears that the Pope said condom use can be acceptable in certain cases, where the protection of life was the primary aim, not the prevention of life (ie, contraception). He apparently said that male prostitutes could use condoms as a step towards 'acting responsibly' - because there is no chance of contraception between two men, presumably. Not that the Vatican has shifted its position on homosexuality one inch.
Benedict has caused a right old flap at HQ with spokesmen falling over themselves to explain what he 'really' meant. Rev Federico Lombardi said the remarks were unprecedented but that they were given 'colloquially', not as part of official church teaching. In case that wasn't clear, Sandro Magister, a Vatican reporter, explained that there is a 'graduated spectrum of authority' between official church teaching and conversational papal remarks.
The Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, broke an embargo to say that condom use was justified in some cases. But then the Rev Joseph Fession whose Ignatius Press published the English version weighed in and said that the Italian translation was wrong. The German and English versions talk about male prostitutes while the Italian version refers to female prostitutes. The Pope approved only the German version.
Confusion reigns. Asked by the website of the US-based National Catholic Register whether Benedict's statement indicated that in some cases condoms were permissible, Cardinal Raymond Burke said: "No, it's not." Again, get your act together, guys. Did some of you not get the memo?
But at a press conference in the Vatican to mark the launch of the book, Lombardi said: "I personally asked the pope if there was a serious, important problem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine," Lombardi said. "He told me: 'No.'"
However, a spokesman for the charity Caritas said that bishops conferences in Southern Africa in 2000 and in Chad in 2002 had already sent out pastoral letters to church workers advising them to follow their conscience when advising married couples where one partner was infected.
Other Catholic outlets jumped in to say that the Pope had not changed the church's teaching on condom use and that L'Osservatore - the Vatican's own newspaper, remember - had betrayed him. Blaming the media for getting the wrong end of the stick or going for sensational headlines is often entirely justified, but in this case, it's the Vatican's own mouthpiece that is getting the blame. The right hand really doesn't know what the left hand is doing. You'd really think that after nearly 2000 years at this game they would have got their act together.
What the Pope said was (probably, until the next refutation or 'clarification'):
'There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be the first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way towards recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection, that can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality'. The Pope added that the church can never regard condom use as a 'real or moral solution'.
What the 'humanization of sexuality' might be is anyone's guess. Presumably, he means sex only between a lady and a gentleman who are married and want to make babies.
Condoms still absolutely cannot be used for contraception. One of the pope's most senior officials, Cardinal Rino Fisichella, told the press conference it was "intrinsically an evil". Could we get some 'clarification' on that?
Maybe this has opened a debate. Maybe the Catholic Church will be forced to discuss condoms and HIV/AIDS. Maybe charity workers on the frontline will continue ignoring HQ and taking the more humane course of action. Whatever happens, the Vatican comes out of this looking like a bunch of amateurs who can't even give a consistent message.
The Pope explained earlier in the book why nothing a Pope says in an interview should be regarded as authoritative. Except for all the other parts of the book that the Vatican doesn't disagree with. So what it boils down to is that the Pope was just having a bit of a chat, what he said doesn't count because he wasn't wearing his big Popey hat at the time and didn't start the sentence with 'Simon says...'
If there are any further 'clarifications', I'll post them here.