Pope Benedict XVI has opened the door on the previously taboo subject of condoms as a way to fight HIV, saying male prostitutes who use condoms may be beginning to act responsibly. It's a stunning comment for a pontiff who has blamed condoms for making the AIDS crisis worse.
The pope made the comments in an interview with a German journalist published as a book entitled "Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times," which is being released Tuesday. The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano ran excerpts on Saturday.
Church teaching has long opposed condoms because they are a form of artificial contraception, although the Vatican has never released an explicit policy about condoms and HIV. The Vatican has been harshly criticized for its position.
Benedict said that condoms are not a moral solution to stopping AIDS. But he said in some cases, such as for male prostitutes, their use could represent a first step in assuming moral responsibility "in the intention of reducing the risk of infection."
Benedict made the comment in response to a general question about Africa, where heterosexual HIV spread is rampant.
He used as a specific example male prostitutes, for whom contraception is not usually an issue, but did not mention married couples where one spouse is infected. The Vatican has come under pressure from even church officials to condone condom use for such monogamous married couples to protect the uninfected spouse from transmission.
Benedict drew the wrath of the United Nations, European governments and AIDS activists when, en route to Africa in 2009, he told reporters that the AIDS problem on the continent couldn't be resolved by distributing condoms. "On the contrary, it increases the problem," he said then.
Journalist Peter Seewald, who interviewed Benedict over the course of six days this summer, raised the Africa condom comments, asking him if it wasn't "madness" for the Vatican to forbid a high-risk population from using condoms.
"There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility," Benedict said.
Asked if that meant that the church wasn't opposed in principle to condoms, the pope replied:
The church "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."
Elsewhere in the book he reaffirmed church teaching opposing artificial contraception.
"How many children are killed who might one day have been geniuses, who could have given humanity something new, who could have given us a new Mozart or some new technical discovery?" he asked rhetorically.
He reiterated the church's position that abstinence and marital fidelity is the only sure way to prevent HIV.
The English publisher of the book, Rev. Joseph Fessio, said the pope was not justifying condom use as a lesser of two evils.
"This is not a justification," he said. Rather, "The intention of protecting the other from disease, of using a condom, may be a sign of an awakening moral responsibility."
However, the Rev. Jim Martin, a Catholic writer, said the comments were certainly a departure, an exception where there had never been an exception before.
"While some bishops and archbishops have spoken in this way, the pope has never affirmed this," Martin said. "And it's interesting that he uses as an example someone who is trying to act morally to someone else by not passing on an infection, which was always the stance of those people who favored condoms in cases of HIV and AIDS. So it does mark a departure."
The English translation of the original German specified "male prostitute." The Italian translation in L'Osservatore Romano, however, used the feminine "prostitute." The discrepancy wasn't immediately clear.
Cardinal Elio Sgreccia, the Vatican's longtime top official on bioethics and sexuality, elaborated on the pontiff's comments, stressing that it was imperative to "make certain that this is the only way to save a life." Sgreccia told the Italian news agency ANSA that that is why the pope on the condom issue "dealt with it in the realm of the exceptional."
The condom question was one that "needed an answer for a long time," Sgreccia said. "If Benedict XVI raised the question of exceptions, this exception must be accepted ... and it must be verified that this is the only way to save life. This must be demonstrated," Sgreccia said.
In the 1960s, the Vatican itself condoned giving contraceptive pills to nuns at risk of rape by fighters in the Congo to prevent pregnancy, arguing that the contraception was a lesser evil than pregnancy.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans said clearly the pope wasn't encouraging condom use.
"I think the pope has been very strong in saying condoms do not solve the problem of morality and do not solve the problem of good sex education. But if a person chooses not to follow the teaching of Christ in the church, they are at least obliged to prevent another person from contracting a disease that is deadly," he said.
In Africa, Benedict's comments drew praise among gays and AIDS activists.
"If he's talking about condoms, it's a step in the right direction," said David Kamau, who heads the nonprofit Kenya Treatment Access Movement. "It's accepting the reality on the ground ... 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."
John Kitte, a gay Ugandan, said the pope was acting as a good parent.
"He minds about all the people living on earth. What he has suggested is very good and I encourage gays to take his advice seriously."
But an evangelist pastor in the Uganda capital of Kampala, Solomon Male, argued the pope shouldn't be granting any recognition of or encouragement to gays.
"If the Pope is saying so, then he has not read the Bible," he said. "Gay acts are bad. It is abominable and should not take place."
Christian Weisner, of the pro-reform group We Are Church in the pope's native Germany, said the pope's comments were "surprising, and if that's the case one can be happy about the pope's ability to learn."
In other comments in the book, Benedict said:
— If a pope is no longer physically, psychologically or spiritually capable of doing his job, then he has the "right, and under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign."
—He was surprised by the scale of clerical sex abuse, particularly in his native Germany, and acknowledged that the Vatican could have better communicated its response. "One can always wonder whether the pope should not speak more often."
— On Islam in Europe, he declined to endorse such moves as France's banning the burqa or Switzerland's citizen referendum to forbid topping mosques with minarets.
"Christians are tolerant, and in that respect they also allow others to have their self-image," Benedict replied when asked if Christians should be "glad" about such initiatives. "As for the burqa, I can see no reason for a general ban."
— On Pope Pius XII, the wartime pontiff accused by some Jewish groups of staying publicly silent on the Holocaust: Some historians have asked the Vatican to put Pius' sainthood process on hold until the Holy See opens up its archives from his papacy. But Benedict said an internal "inspection" of those unpublished documents failed to support "negative" allegations against Pius.
"It is perfectly clear that as soon as he protested publicly, the Germans would have ceased to respect" Vatican extraterritoriality of convents and monasteries who were sheltering Jews from the Nazi occupiers in Rome. "The thousands who had found a safe haven ... would have been surely deported," Benedict argued.
In the book, Benedict also offers insights into his private life, saying he enjoys watching TV at home in the evenings with his secretaries and the four women who take care of his apartment, preferring the news and an Italian TV show from decades ago "Don Camillo and Peppone" about a parish priest and his bumbling assistant.
He said he always wears his white cassock, never a sweater, and wears an old Junghans watch that was left to him by his sister when she died. When he prays, he said, he prays to the Lord as well as the saints and considers himself good friends with Sts. Augustine, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas.
In the book, he comes across as open, charming and funny — and deeply concerned about his church, its people and their future.
He reflects on the legacy of the landmark 1968 encyclical, "Humanae vitae," where Pope Paul VI laid out the church's opposition to artificial contraception. Decades later, "the basic lines of 'Humanae vitae' are still correct."
Still, the pope said, sexual ethics today pose a huge question. "It is correct there is much in this area that needs to be pondered and expressed in new ways."
He championed the church's advocacy of the so-called "rhythm method," by which a married couple who don't want to conceive avoid intercourse on days when the woman is likely to be fertile, saying that is "not just a method but a way of life."
"And that is something fundamentally different from when I take the pill without binding myself interiorly to another person, so that I can jump into bed with a random acquaintance," Benedict said.
Associated Press reporters Katharine Houreld in Nairobi, Kenya; Godfrey Olukya in Kampala, Uganda; Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans and Rachel Zoll in New York contributed to this report.