VATICAN CITY — Vatican officials insist it's nothing "revolutionary," but to many others Pope Benedict XVI's comments regarding condom use mark an important moment in the battle against AIDS and an effort by the pontiff to burnish his legacy.
Just a year after he said condoms could be making the AIDS crisis worse, Benedict said that for some people, such as male prostitutes, using them could represent a first step in assuming moral responsibility "in the intention of reducing the risk of infection."
The Vatican's ban on contraception remains, but Alberto Melloni, an Italian church historian, said Benedict "opened without a doubt a crack that cannot help but have consequences."
Benedict stepped where no pope has gone since Paul VI's famous 1968 encyclical "Humanae Vitae" barred Catholics from using condoms and other artificial contraception. Pressure to lift the ban has grown with the spread of the HIV virus, which has infected some 60 million people worldwide and led to 25 million AIDS-related deaths over three decades.
The pope chose to make his statement not in an official document but in an interview with a German journalist, Peter Seewald, that is coming out this week in the book Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times. L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, published excerpts Saturday. The pope says in his own writings that he takes personal responsibility for the remarks, meaning they are not official church teaching.
A number of top churchmen, including the Italian Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, one of Benedict's rivals during his 2005 election as pope, have been calling for a humanitarian gesture on the issue of condoms. Others, including prelates in Africa, have said condom use is worth considering when one partner in a marriage is HIV positive.
Benedict did not address such cases in his interview, and he reaffirmed church teaching against artificial contraception. But he said, "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."
The Holy See's chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, issued a statement stressing 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.
In Zimbabwe, where roughly 15 percent of adults have the HIV virus, a priest 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 the Rev. Peter 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."