It's rare in journalism that a story gets more inaccurate as time goes on, but it's happened to The New York Times in reporting on Pope Benedict XVI and the cult of the condom. In their first report on Sunday, Times reporters Rachel Donadio and Laurie Goodstein had their story headlined "In Rare Cases, Pope Justifies Use of Condoms." In that story, the pontiff's words were limited:
The pope's statement on condoms was extremely limited: he did not approve their use or suggest that the Roman Catholic Church was beginning to back away from its prohibition of birth control. In fact, the one example he cited as a possibly appropriate use was by male prostitutes.
But on Wednesday's front page, the Times seemed to be persuaded by liberal condom advocates to a more aggressive interpretation. The front-page headline was "Halting Disease Can Outweigh Ban on Condoms, Pope Signals." Now it wasn't his actual words being translated, but the smoking out of "signals." Donadio and Goodstein began this story:
Pope Benedict XVI clearly acknowledged on Tuesday that the need to prevent diseases like AIDS could outweigh the church's long opposition to the use of condoms.
This aggressive misinterpretation sounds like what the Times was saying is the pope "clearly acknowledged reality that condoms trump his unhealthy little dogmas, and we're not letting him backpedal into what he thinks he said." The Times turned to liberal Catholics who hailed the decision for saying something revolutionary:
"We're in a new world," said the Rev. Jon Fuller, a Jesuit priest and a physician at the Center for H.I.V./AIDS Care and Research at Boston Medical Center. The pope is "implicitly" saying, he said, "that you cannot anymore raise the objection that any use of the condom is an intrinsic evil."
Conservatives were allowed briefly, but only to confirm they were "reeling" from the liberal onslaught:
Catholic conservatives who believed Catholic teaching against contraception to be inviolable were reeling. "This is really shaking things up big time," said Dr. John M. Haas, the president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, who serves on the governing council of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life.
Dr. Haas, a moral theologian, said he had seen an embargoed copy of a new book in which the pope conceded there might be extreme cases in which there were grounds for the use of condoms. "I told the publisher, `Don't publish this; it's going to create such a mess,' " he added.
The Times reporters delighted in finding "room for ambiguity" in the remarks, looking for smiles (and perhaps winks or growls). They found controversy in how the Italian translation of the interview confused the genders of the prostitute in the example:
Benedict's papacy has suffered from frequent communications missteps. But this time, it appeared that the pope was sending an intentional message. Father Lombardi said he had asked Benedict if he had recognized the risk in publishing a book of interviews in a complex media landscape where his words might be "misunderstood."
"The pope smiled," Father Lombardi said.
Benedict's comments on condoms seem in some ways to be a profound provocation, indicating that although he is not changing church doctrine, he is insisting that condoms can be a responsible option in preventing disease.
The Times provided more quotes thanking the pope for supposedly favoring a shift on condoms:
"What the pope said about the use of condoms to prevent illness certainly is significant and helps the comprehensive fight against AIDS in Africa," said Mario Marazziti, the spokesman for the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Catholic group in Rome that runs 40 AIDS clinics in 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
During the decades of debate about condoms, the chorus of voices from inside the church challenging its position had grown increasingly louder - especially in Africa.
The Times also turned to a feminist theologian to praise this new "shift" they're pushing:
Lisa Sowle Cahill, a professor of theology at Boston College, said the pope's new openness about condoms was significant even if it did not change church teaching.
"I see it as a shift in attention, so that the politics of AIDS is larger on the radar screen than the politics of contraception, and to me that is a needed and appropriate shift," she said.
The story concluded with the notion that conservatives now think the pope is less than infallible:
Indeed, Dr. Haas, of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, could barely countenance Father Lombardi's comments that broadened the debate to include women. "I don't think it's a clarification; it's a muddying of the waters," he said. "My opinion is that the pope purposely chose a male prostitute to avoid that particular debate."
And if Benedict was in fact opening that debate? "I think the pope's wrong," Dr. Haas added.
But it's important to be precise: what the Pope said to a German reporter as he muses philosophically is not official papal teaching or "policy" until he issues it ex cathedra, and only then is it defined as infallible.