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.
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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. 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."
"This is if you're a woman, a man, or a transsexual. We're at the same point," 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.
Benedict with the recent comments, Vatican insiders said Monday, raising both hopes and fears that the church may be starting to back away from its condom ban for its flock of 1 billion Catholics.
Theologians have long been studying the possibility of condoning such limited condom use as a lesser evil. There were reports years ago that the Vatican was considering a document on the subject, but opposition to any change has apparently blocked publication.
One Vatican official said Monday he believes the pope just "decided to do it" and get a debate going.
For the deeply conservative Benedict, it seemed like a bold leap into modernity - and the worst nightmare of many at the Vatican. The pope's comments set off a firestorm among Catholics, politicians and health workers that is certain to reverberate for a long time despite frantic damage control at the Vatican.
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.
For more info:
"Light Of The World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times" by Pope Benedict XVI, Peter Seewald (Ignatius Press)