Speaking to a German journalist whose book was excerpted in a Vatican newspaper Nov. 20, Pope Benedict XVI said the use of condoms may be acceptable in some cases to prevent the transmission of AIDS, possibly foreshadowing a shift in the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on the issue.
The pontiff said that in some cases, such as for male prostitutes, condom use could represent a first step in assuming moral responsibility “in the intention of reducing the risk of infection.”
AIDS advocates welcomed the Pope’s comments, although they cautioned that the remarks fell short of declaring condoms an acceptable method of disease prevention for all.
“This is a significant and positive step forward taken by the Vatican today,” the U.N.’s top AIDS official said. “This move recognizes that responsible sexual behavior and the use of condoms have important roles in HIV prevention.”
A UNAIDS spokesman in Geneva said that while over 80 percent of HIV infections are caused through sexual transmission, only 4 percent to 10 percent result from sex between men. There are no reliable statistics about how many infections might be prevented if male prostitutes routinely used condoms.
However, even the limited example cited by the pope was a step in the right direction, the spokesman said. “We are welcoming this as an opening up of discussion,” he told The Associated Press.
In Britain, where the Vatican’s opposition to condom use has come under particularly fierce criticism, relief over the Pope’s statement was tempered with caution over the relatively limited scope of his comments.
Gay activist Peter Tatchell, who helped coordinate the protests against Benedict when the latter visited Britain earlier this year, said the new papal policy on condoms amounted to a “volte-face.”
“He seems to be admitting, for the first time, that using condoms can be morally responsible if they help save lives,” Tatchell said in an e-mail. But he went on to slam the Vatican for a range of positions on a variety of moral issues.
“If the Pope can change his stance on condoms, why can’t he also modify the Vatican’s harsh, intolerant opposition to women’s rights, gay equality, fertility treatment and embryonic stem cell research?”
In South Africa, which has an estimated 5.7 million HIV-positive citizens – more than any other country – and 500,000 new infections each year, activists guardedly greeted the Pope’s message.
Caroline Nenguke of the Treatment Action Campaign, a Cape Town, South Africa-based advocacy group for people living with HIV, called the Pope’s words a “step in the right direction.”
But she said the message was unclear, and could lead to misinterpretation.
“It shows that only male prostitutes should use condoms and could make people in heterosexual relations think they are not allowed to (use) them,” she said. “The pope has a lot of followers – he’s an opinion leader and a world leader – and if he’s going to take on a message, especially a message of life and death, it has to be very clear.”
Church members in the Philippines, Southeast Asia’s largest Roman Catholic nation, praised the pontiff’s words even as their leaders rejected any suggestion that the Vatican was softening its line on contraceptives.
While the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on artificial contraception was not in question, Benedict’s stunning remarks could re-ignite debate on contraceptive use in places like the Philippines, where the issue has recently pitted the new president against the influential Catholic Church.
Philippines President Benigno Aquino III recently expressed support for the right to contraception. A church official has threatened to launch civil disobedience protests.
For those focused on battling the scourge of AIDS, however, the Pope’s message came as a welcome surprise.
Father Peter Makome, a Catholic priest in Zimbabwe, said he would spread the news.
“I’ve got brothers and sisters and friends who are suffering from HIV because they were not practicing safe sex,” said Makome, who works in the capital Harare’s Southerton Parish. “Now the message has come out that they can go ahead and do safe sex; it’s much better for everyone.”
Sex worker Constance Makoni from the nearby town of Mbare, said she was also pleased to hear the Pope’s message. She said she uses condoms to protect herself against HIV, even though it is against her beliefs.
“It is very good to learn that our church has now come out in the open to allow the use of condoms by its members to prevent the spread of AIDS,” she said. “I think Pope should have made these announcements a long time ago and it was going to be helpful among the church folks.”
But she said she would also like to see papal recognition of contraception.
“If they would also expand this to contraceptives as well, because it’s another form of family planning which is not being discussed,” she said.
In Liberia, some non-Catholic clergymen reacted strongly to the Pope’s statement. The West African nation is predominantly Christian, but Catholics are not the majority.
“I sharply disagree with the Pope,” said Rev. Venicious Reeves, a popular Pentecostal preacher in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. “The Pope should instead encourage people he classifies as male prostitutes to get out of prostitution and live in morality.”
Baptist preacher Rev. Gardea Johnson asked: “If his concern is about male prostitutes, what about the female ones who are even more vulnerable?”
In the central Swiss city of Lucerne, where the majority of the population identifies itself as Roman Catholic, a church spokesman said the Pope’s remarks would come as a relief to many believers.
“We are happy that this discussion, which already existed in the church because several bishops have talked about it, has been picked up by the Pope,” said Florian Flohr.
Catholic churches in Lucerne raised eyebrows last month when they distributed some 3,000 condoms as part of an outreach program aimed at young people.
“We think what the Pope said confirms our view that if you want to talk about AIDS, you have to talk about condoms,” said Flohr.
He added that the pontiff’s words had been carefully chosen to avoid the impression that condoms could be seen as a panacea against AIDS, while at the same time deflecting long-standing criticism at the Vatican’s absolutist stance on condom use.
“I think many Catholics will be relieved,” said Flohr. “His past comments about condoms meant there couldn’t be a proper discussion about the subject. Now we can talk about human sexuality more openly.”