The Catholic Church has a well known position on the use of condoms: it doesn't approve. You may think that's a crazy policy - I, as it happens, think it's a crazy policy - but it is hardly likely that the pope is going to change it off the top of his head while on a plane bound for Cameroon. So when a French journalist asked him about the policy - noting that it was "often considered unrealistic and ineffective" - it's unlikely that he expected anything other than a clear defence of the church's view. Which is, more or less, what he got. Benedict began by noting the good work done by religious orders before adding (my translation):
I would say that one cannot overcome the problem of AIDS merely with slogans [orig: money]. If there is not the spirit, if the Africans do not help themselves, you can't overcome the scourge by handing out condoms. On the contrary, [the risk is that] they make the problem worse. The solution requires a two-pronged attack. First, humanising sexuality, that is a human and spiritual renovation which brings with it a new way of relating to each other. Secondly, genuine friendship towards those in need, the desire - which entails sacrifice, personal renunciation - to be with the sufferers. Those are the factors that will help and which will bring visible progress.
I think some of those sentiments are quite profound. But, needless to say, the suggestion that condoms might make things worse caused quite a kerfuffle. Ratzo's media people clumsily attempted to defuse the latest papal "gaffe" by adding the words "the risk is" to the official website. Something that the Times quickly spotted, and which led Damian Thompson to renew his not-so-subtle campaign to be made head of communications at the Vatican by accusing the present incumbent, Fr Lombardi, of being "beyond stupid". What the revision actually shows is how in the wake of the Richard Williamson fiasco the Vatican is running scared of the global media.
And the media, for their part, scent blood. Hence a statement that was, even in its original form, more-or-less what anyone would have expected the pope to say is treated as yet another demonstration of Benedict's peculiar combination of reactionary views and tactlessness. So, for example, the "progressive" religious think tank (now there's an oxymoron to savour) Ekklesia huffed that the added caveat was "unlikely to satisfy critics who say his dogmatic stance against contraception is seriously damaging the fight against HIV-AIDS and endangering the lives of millions".
Peter Popham in the Independent suggests that the condom remark was merely "the latest in an endless succession of high-profile gaffes that have made the brainiest pope of modern times also by a wide margin the most accident-prone" and claims that his alleged gaffes "are becoming as frequent and predictable as Silvio Berlusconi's":
In previous pratfalls the Bavarian theologian has welcomed back into the Church a bishop who flatly denies the existence of the Nazi gas chambers, refused to sign UN declarations on the rights of homosexuals and the disabled, denied the possibility of inter-religious dialogue after praying in a mosque, insulted Muslims en masse, and failed to mention the Jews while visiting Auschwitz.
That last one sounds like quite a serious omission, I'll grant you. But "pratfalls"? It rather depends on what you suppose the pope is for. If you imagine that he is (or ought to be) a kindly spokesman for international niceness, a sort of UN goodwill ambassador in a white robe, or think (as Tony Blair appears to) that Catholicism is a sort of mushy coming-together of the opaquely well-intentioned, then maybe you'll wonder what Ratzinger's up to when he expresses politically incorrect opinions. Or you'll act "shocked, shocked" to discover that there's been some Catholicism going on in the Vatican. If only he could be like the Dalai Lama, you'll think, an aid junkie who giggles so benignly it's easy to forget that he was once the omnipotent god-king of a corrupt medieval theocracy. John Paul II, at least in the decade before he started drooling and falling over on stage, was such a natural showman that he managed to overcome - even to ignore - the criticism he inevitably drew from the bien pensants. Ratzinger, by contrast, a shy intellectual with a lisping German accent, yellowing skin and a taste for baroque costumes, is a gift to his opponents both inside and outside the church. And don't they just love to hate him.
Every time he says anything that might remotely be construed as controversial it's open season. Now even politicians see advantage in laying into him. That taboo was breached when Angela Merkel blasted him publicly during the Williamson affair. These latest remarks drew condemnation from the French and German governments, and the Dutch Development Minister Bert Koenders said it was "extremely harmful and very serious" that the Pope was "forbidding people from protecting themselves". Which is, needless to say, very far from what he was saying. But, hey, now everyone's at it, why not have a go at the Pope. It's not as though militant Catholics are going to gather outside the BBC shouting "death to the unbelievers", or set light to effigies of Polly Toynbee.
The Pope is a Catholic. Yes, I know, I couldn't quite believe it either - I'm still trying to process the information about bears and their excretory functions, but there you go. And it turns out that the church which Ratzinger currently leads (or tries to) has various opinions, not all of which may be in strict accordance with the editorial line generally taken by the Guardian. Amazing.