- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 23, 2010

VATICAN CITY | Using a condom is a lesser evil than transmitting HIV to a sexual partner — even if that means a woman averts a possible pregnancy, the Vatican said Tuesday, signaling a seismic shift in papal teaching as it 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. James Martin, a Jesuit editor and writer. “By acknowledging that condoms help prevent spread of HIV between people in sexual relationships, the pope has completely changed the Catholic discussion on condoms.”

The change came on a day when U.N. AIDS officials announced that the number of new HIV cases has fallen significantly — thanks to condom use — and a U.S. medical journal published a study showing that a daily pill could help prevent spread of the virus among gay men.


“This is a great day in the fight against AIDS … a major milestone,” said Mitchell Warren, head of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition

In Africa, 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.”

Worldwide, 33 million people live with HIV.

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 Dr. Brima Kargbo.

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said Benedict knew full well that his new comments would provoke intense debate. Conservative Catholics have been trying to minimize the scope of what he said since excerpts were published this weekend in the Vatican newspaper.

Father Lombardi 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,” Father Lombardi said, adding that the pope wanted to give his perspective on the need for a greater humanized, responsible sexuality.

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 moving toward a more moral and responsible sexuality by aiming to protect their partner from a deadly infection. On Tuesday, the Vatican expanded the comments to include women.