VATICAN CITY — Using a condom is a lesser evil than transmitting HIV to a sexual partner — even if that means a woman averting a possible pregnancy, the Vatican said Tuesday, signaling a seismic shift in papal teaching as it further explained Pope Benedict XVI's comments.
The Vatican has long been criticized for its patent opposition to condom use, particularly in Africa, where AIDS is rampant. But the latest interpretation of Benedict's comments about condoms and HIV essentially means the Roman Catholic Church is acknowledging that its long-held, anti-birth control stance against condoms doesn't justify putting someone's life at risk.
"This is a game-changer," said the Rev. Jim Martin, a Jesuit editor and writer.
Benedict said in a book released Tuesday that condom use by people such as male prostitutes is a lesser evil because it indicates they were moving 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.
Questions arose immediately about the Pope's intent, though, 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 apply only to male prostitutes. Benedict replied that it really doesn'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."
"This is if you're a man, a woman, or a transsexual. We're at the same point. The point is it's a first step of taking responsibility, of avoiding passing a grave risk onto another," Lombardi said.
The clarification is significant.
UNAIDS estimates that 22.4 million people in Africa are infected with HIV, and that 54 percent — or 12.1 million — are women. Heterosexual transmission of HIV and multiple, heterosexual partners are believed to be a major cause of the high infection rates in Africa.
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.
In Africa on Tuesday, AIDS activists, clerics and ordinary Africans alike applauded the Pope's revised comments.
"I say hurrah for Pope Benedict," exclaimed Linda-Gail Bekker, chief executive of South Africa's Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation. She said the Pope's statement may prompt many people to "adopt a simple lifestyle strategy to protect themselves."
In Sierra Leone, the director of the National AIDS Secretariat predicted condom use would now increase, lowering the number of new infections.
"Once the Pope has made a pronouncement, his priests will be in the forefront in advocating for their perceived use of condoms," said the official, Dr. Brima Kargbo.
Lombardi said that Benedict knew full well that his new comments would provoke debate and discussion. Conservative Catholics have been trying to minimize the scope of what he said since the weekend. Lombardi, though, praised Benedict for his "courage" in confronting the problem.
"He did it because he believed that it was a serious, important question in the world of today," Lombardi said, adding that the Pope wanted to give his perspective on the need for a greater humanized, responsible sexuality.
In the book, the Pope was not justifying or condoning gay sex or heterosexual sex outside of a marriage. Elsewhere in it, 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 is a lesser evil than passing HIV onto a partner even when pregnancy is possible.
"By acknowledging that condoms help prevent spread of HIV between people in sexual relationships, the Pope has completely changed the Catholic discussion on condoms," Martin said.
"We're not just talking about an encounter between two men, which has little to do with procreation. We're now introducing relationships that could lead to childbirth," he said.
While the lesser evil 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 — marked the first time a Pope had ever publicly applied the theory to condom use as a way to fight HIV transmission.
Individual bishops and theologians have applied that theory to the condom HIV issue, but it had previously been rejected at the highest levels of the Vatican, Martin said.
"He is affirming that the use of condoms can prevent the spread of HIV within sexual relationships, which is brand new for the Vatican at that level to be speaking about," he said.
Monsignor Jacques Suaudeau, an expert at the Vatican's bioethics advisory board, said the Pope was articulating the idea in church teaching, which some church officials have practiced for a long time regarding condoms, that there are degrees of evil.
"Contraception is not the worst evil. The church does not see it as good, but the church does not see it as the worst," he told The Associated Press. "Abortion is far worse. Passing on HIV is criminal. That is absolute irresponsibility."
He said the pope broached the topic because questions about condoms and AIDS persisted.
"This pope gave this interview. He was not foolish. It was intentional. He thought that this was a way of bringing up many questions. Why? Because it's true that the church sometimes has not been too clear," Suaudeau said.
Lombardi said the pope didn't use the technical terminology of "lesser evil" in his comments because he wanted his words to be understood by the general public. Vatican officials, however, said that was what he meant.
"The contribution the pope wanted to give is not a technical discussion with scientific language on moral problems," Lombardi said. "This is not the job of a book like of this type."
Luigi Accatoli, a veteran Vatican journalist who was on the Vatican panel to launch the book, put it this way: "He spoke with caution and courage of a pragmatic way through which missionaries and other ecclesial workers can help to defeat the pandemic of AIDS without approving but also without excluding — in particular cases — the use of a condom," Accatoli said.
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