Pope Benedict’s remarks that the use of condoms might not always be wrong was welcomed by Catholic reformers and groups working to combat HIV.
In a book due to be published on Tuesday, the Pope (photo, from aljazeera.net) said the use of condoms might be justified on a case by case basis in order to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids.
According to analysts this is a softening of his previously hard line against condoms in the battle against HIV.
The Vatican has long opposed condoms as an artificial form of contraception, an opinion that has drawn heavy criticism, particularly from Aids campaigners, who say condoms are one of the few methods proven to stop the spread of HIV.
Pope Benedict had drawn criticism last year during a visit to Cameroon by saying that handing out condoms might actually make HIV infection worse.
The Pope talked about exceptional circumstances and gave the example of male prostitutes. He said in this case, using condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS could be seen as an act of moral responsibility, even though condoms were “not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection”.
UNAids, the United Nations programme on HIV/Aids, welcomed the comments as a “significant and positive step forward”.
“This move recognises that responsible sexual behaviour and the use of condoms have important roles in HIV prevention,” said UNAids Executive Director Michel Sidibe.
The remarks were also welcomed by the Kenya Treatment Access Movement (KETAM), which works to combat the spread of HIV. It said it showed the Pope’s acceptance of reality that abstinence did not always work.
“It’s accepting the reality on the ground,” said David Kamau, head of the KETAM. “If the Church has failed to get people to follow its moral values and practice abstinence, they should take the next best step and encourage condom use.”
According to the Catholic reform group We Are Church the comments show the Pope is able to learn from experience.
Although the Pope’s comments were significant, Peter Tatchell, the British gay rights campaigner, told the BBC they needed “clarification”.
‘Prevent transmission of the virus’
Entitled Light of the World : The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times, the new book is based on a series of interview the Pope gave earlier this year to the German Catholic journalist, Peter Seewald.
When Seewald asked him whether the Catholic Church was not opposed in principle to the use of condoms, the Pope replied : “She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”
Pope Benedict said the “sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalisation of sexuality” where sexuality was no longer an expression of love, “but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves”.
After reiterating the Church’s fundamental opposition to contraception and repeating that condoms were not the answer to curbing HIV, Pope Benedict said there was much in the area of sexual ethics that needed to be pondered and expressed in new ways.
Although it was the first time the Pope has voiced such an opinion on condoms, Austen Ivereigh, coordinator of the Catholic Voices group, said it was in line with what Catholic moral theologians have been saying for many years.
“The Church’s teaching on contraception predates the discovery of Aids,” Ivereigh told the BBC news website.
“The prevalence of HIV raised the question of whether condoms could be used to prevent the transmission of the virus.
“If the intention is to prevent transmission of the virus, rather than prevent contraception, moral theologians would say that was of a different moral order.”
But Clifford Longley, who writes for The Tablet, a British Catholic newspaper, said the development was far more significant and that the “small concession… could easily become a collapse in the whole edifice of Catholic teaching on contraception”.
“The implication seems to me to be much vaster than even the Pope anticipates,” said Mr Longley.
Excerpts of the book were published in Saturday’s edition of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.