VATICAN CITY — Some Catholic believers in the Americas greeted Pope Benedict XVI's comments on condoms as a sign that the church was stepping into the modern debate in the fight against AIDS, though the church was adamant Sunday that nothing has changed in its views banning contraception.
Churchgoers had praise and wariness for the pope's comments that condoms could be morally justified in some limited situations, such as for male prostitutes wanting to prevent the spread of HIV.
Others cautioned it could open a doctrinal Pandora's box. And the exact meaning of what the pope said was still up for interpretation.
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"That's a theological mind trap," said Wendy Lasekan, a 47-year-old stay-at-home mom, after Sunday morning Mass at Saint Michael Catholic Church in Worthington, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus.
"In some cases, it would be justifiable — or acceptable — to use a condom," she said. "If your goal would be to prevent the spread of AIDS, that would be a charitable act."
Ellen Reik, a 79-year-old retired housewife who attended Saint Michael, said if taken out of context, the pope's remarks could renew the debate over the morality of birth control — both as a contraceptive and a means to curb the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
Several more believers who spoke to The Associated Press following Sunday services in the United States and South America felt the pope's comments marked a tentative step into a more modern stance in the global fight against AIDS.
Jean Jasman, an 81-year-old state worker from Montpelier, Vt., called the stance a departure from church doctrine on condom use, "but it's to the betterment of humanity, if we can help prevent the spread of this horrendous disease."
Lois Breaux rolled her eyes when asked about the Pope's statements as she was leaving Mass at St. Kieran Church in the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami.
"About time — and it wasn't enough," she said. "As a Catholic, they need to recognize this is an epidemic. The church needs to stand up and say what he did, but he should have gone further."
Vatican officials strongly emphasized Sunday that the church's position on contraception has not changed.
The pope spoke in an interview given to a German journalist. Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano on Saturday published excerpts from the book, "Light of the World," three days ahead of publication. In the interview, Benedict says that in certain cases, such as for a male prostitute, condom use could be a first step in assuming moral responsibility for stemming the spread of the virus that causes AIDS.
The Holy See's chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, stressed that Benedict was not "morally justifying" the unbridled exercise of sexuality and the church's main advice in the fight against AIDS remains the same: promoting sexual abstinence and fidelity among married couples.
The pope's comments caught some followers off-guard with the frank discussion of a taboo topic.
"I was shocked. I thought, 'Why even mention that?' It was unnecessary," said Joan Caron, 86, of Oldtown, Maine, who attended Mass at the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore, the nation's oldest Roman Catholic cathedral. "I was just shocked that he'd even bring the word up."
In Brazil, home to more Roman Catholics than any other country, 71-year-old Idalina Fernandes said she thought it was strange when she first heard the news.
"The pope and the church had been criticized for being too strict regarding this subject, but I guess we can't close our eyes to the problems we have today in the world," said Fernandes, who helps organize Masses at a small church in Sao Paolo. "I never thought the pope would say something like that, but the world is different today, the Church seems to know that."
The fine distinctions in the pope's comments were clear to Cliff Krieger, 68, of Lowell, Mass., who said it was good that the discussion on preventing disease was taking place, though he generally approves of the church's position on contraception.
"I think that the church is saying that use of condoms is missing the point about what sex is about," he said. "There are a lot of people who are ... just using it for pleasure for themselves, as they might be using cocaine on the weekend. So I think the church's stand is generally a pretty good one."
Speaking shortly before Mass began at St. Mary of the Lake Roman Catholic Church in Lakewood, N.J., 42-year-old Jason Randall said he strongly supports the church's position that forbids the use of condoms and other contraceptives.
But he felt the pope's comments show that sometimes exceptions are needed for almost every rule.
"I know it's a cliche to put it this way, but if it helps prevent even one death or one person getting sick, it's worth it," Randall said. "I believe in a loving God, one who does not want people to suffer, whether they be saints or sinners."
"I think that the church needs to realize that sometimes you have to make adjustments with the times and that saving people's lives and protecting life is ultimately the most important thing," said Josephine Zohny of Brooklyn, N.Y., after leaving Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.
Gomez contributed from Manila, Philippines. Associated Press writers Jenny Gross in Johannesburg; Chengetai Zvauya in Harare, Zimbabwe; Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Monrovia, Liberia; Malin Rising in Stockholm; Jamey Keaten in Paris; Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.
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