Image: Pope Benedict XVI
Andrew Medichini  /  AP
Pope Benedict XVI leaves at the end of an audience with newly-appointed cardinals and their relatives, in Paul VI Hall, at the Vatican on Monday.
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updated 11/22/2010 2:11:53 PM ET 2010-11-22T19:11:53

Pope Benedict XVI wanted to "kick-start a debate" when he said some condom use may be justified, Vatican insiders say, raising hopes and fears that the church may be starting to back away from its condom ban for its flock of 1 billion Catholics.

Benedict said in an interview that for some people, such as male prostitutes, using condoms could be assuming moral responsibility because the intent was to reduce infection. The pope did not suggest using condoms as birth control, which is banned by the church, or mention the use of condoms by female prostitutes.

Theologians have long been studying the possibility of condoning such limited condom use as a lesser evil. There were reports years ago that the Vatican was considering a document on the subject, but opposition to any change has apparently blocked publication.

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One Vatican official said Monday he believes the pope just "decided to do it" and get a debate going.

For the deeply conservative Benedict, it seemed like a bold leap into modernity — and the worst nightmare of many at the Vatican. The pope's comments set off a firestorm among Catholics, politicans and health workers that is certain to reverberate for a long time despite frantic damage control at the Vatican.

In a sign of the tensions within the Vatican, the Holy See's chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, rushed out a statement to counter any impression that the church might lift its ban on artificial birth control. Lombardi stressed that the pope's comment neither "reforms or changes" church teaching.

"The reasoning of the pope cannot certainly be defined as a revolutionary turn," he said.

While much of the world hailed Benedict's statement, seeing it as a major step toward lifting the church ban, conservatives were mortified and insist the pontiff was not "justifying" condom use from a theological point of view.

True, Benedict made only a tiny opening, but he stepped where no pope has gone since Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical "Humanae Vitae" that was supposed to have closed debate on church policy barring Catholics from using condoms and other artificial means of contraception.

The pope chose to make his statement not in an official document but in an interview with a German journalist, Peter Seewald, for the book "Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times." L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, first published excerpts of Benedict's comments on Saturday.

Luigi Accattoli, a veteran Vatican journalist who will be on the Vatican's panel when the book is presented Tuesday, said Benedict had taken a "long awaited" step that only the highest authority of the church could do.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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