VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI's comments about condom use being a lesser evil than transmitting HIV also apply to women, the Vatican said Tuesday, a significant shift for a pope who just last year said condoms only worsen the AIDS problem.
Benedict said in a book released Tuesday that condom use by people such as male prostitutes was a lesser evil since it indicated they were taking a step toward a more moral and responsible sexuality by aiming to protect their partner from a deadly infection.
His comments implied that he was referring primarily to homosexual sex, when condoms aren't being used as a form of contraception, which the Vatican opposes.
Questions arose immediately, however, about the pope's intent because the Italian translation of the book used the feminine for prostitute, whereas the original German used the masculine.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters Tuesday that he asked the pope whether he intended his comments to only apply to male prostitutes.Video: Pope takes new position on condoms (on this page)
Benedict replied that it really didn't matter, that the important thing was the person in question took into consideration the life of the other, Lombardi said.
"I personally asked the pope if there was a serious, important problem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine," Lombardi said.
"He told me no. The problem is this ... It's the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship," he added.
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"This is if you're a woman, a man, or a transsexual. We're at the same point, which is the first step in responsibly avoiding passing on a grave risk to the other," Lombardi said.
The pope is not justifying or condoning gay sex or heterosexual sex outside of a marriage.
Elsewhere in the book he reaffirms the Vatican opposition to homosexual acts and artificial contraception and reaffirms the inviolability of marriage between man and woman.
But by broadening the condom comments to also apply to women, the pope is saying that condom use in heterosexual relations is the lesser evil than passing HIV onto a partner.
While that concept has long been a tenet of moral theology, the pope's book "Light of the World" — a series of interviews with a German journalist — was the first time a pope had ever publicly applied the theory to the scenario of condom use as a way to fight HIV transmission.
The pope's comments have generated heated debate, mostly positive in places like Africa which has been devastated by AIDS and where the church has been criticized for its opposition to condom use.
'The Big Lie'
The late cardinal John O'Connor of New York famously branded the use of condoms to stop the spread of AIDS as "The Big Lie."
In the book, the pope says the use of condoms could be seen as "a first step toward moralization," even though condoms are "not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection."
After the pope first mentions that the use of condoms could be justified in certain limited cases, the author, Seewald asks: "Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?"
The pope answers: "It 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."
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The pope's words and Lombardi's explanation — while not changing the Catholic ban on contraception — were nonetheless greeted as a breakthrough by liberal Catholics, AIDS activists and health officials.
"For the first time the use of condoms in special circumstances was endorsed by the Vatican and this is good news and good beginning for us," said Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization.
"It is a marvelous victory for common sense and reason, a major step forward toward recognizing that condom use can play a vital role in reducing the future impact of the HIV pandemic," said Jon O'Brien, head of the U.S. group Catholics for Choice.
"This is a significant and positive step forward taken by the Vatican," said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe. "This move recognizes that responsible sexual behavior and the use of condoms have important roles in HIV prevention."
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.