VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI wanted to “kick-start a debate” when he said some condom use may be justified, Vatican insiders say, raising hopes and fears that the church may be starting to back away from its condom ban for its flock of 1 billion Catholics.
Benedict said in an interview that for some people, such as male prostitutes, using condoms could be assuming moral responsibility because the intent was to reduce infection. The pope did not suggest using condoms as birth control, which is banned by the church, or mention the use of condoms by female prostitutes.
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. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
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.
In a sign of the tensions within the Vatican, the Holy See’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, rushed out a statement to counter any impression that the church might lift its ban on artificial birth control.
Lombardi stressed that 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.
While much of the world hailed Benedict’s statement, seeing it as a major step toward lifting the church ban, conservatives were mortified and insist the pontiff was not “justifying” condom use from a theological point of view.
True, Benedict made only a tiny opening, but he stepped where no pope has gone since Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae that was supposed to have closed debate on church policy barring Catholics from using condoms and other artificial means of contraception.
The pope chose to make his statement not in an official document but in an interview with a German journalist, Peter Seewald, for the book Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times. L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, first published excerpts of Benedict’s comments on Saturday.
Luigi Accattoli, a veteran Vatican journalist who will be on the Vatican’s panel when the book is presented today, said Benedict had taken a “long awaited” step that only the highest authority of the church could do.
The conservative Benedict previously had given little sign of budging on the issue of condoms.
Last year while en route to Africa, the continent hardest hit by HIV, he drew criticism from many health workers by saying condoms not only did not help stop the spread of AIDS but exacerbated the problem.
With Benedict prone to gaffes and crises — such as his remarks likening Islam to violence that caused a fury in the Muslin world and his lifting of the excommunication of a Holocaust-denier — some wondered whether it was again a communication problem.
The author of the book wrote in the preface that Benedict had reviewed the text and made only small corrections. Seewald, who wrote two other books of interviews with Benedict while he was a cardinal, spent six hours over six days with Benedict at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo in July.
The German-born pope appears comfortable talking with his fellow countrymen. Other than his time with Seewald, the only other interview the pope has given was to German television in 2006.
Beyond the debate within the Roman Catholic church on its condoms policy — a number of leading prelates have been seeking some relaxation on the ban because of the AIDS issue — it is unclear how much effect the shift could have on health policy in Africa.
Kevin O’Reilly, a World Health Organization AIDS expert in Geneva, said the pope’s comments “will remove some barriers in Africa.”
“Some of the churches there have been actively campaigning against condom use,” he said. “But I don’t think there are a lot of people making decisions about condom use while worrying about what the Vatican is up to.”
“The fact that the Vatican is demonstrating any flexibility at all, and is considering the real-world use of condoms, is encouraging,” Kelly added.
Many Vatican observers were struck by the example the pope used — that of a male prostitute. It was startling for a pope to talk about the topic of male prostitution but his comments in no way condoned prostitution or homosexual conduct, which the church condemns as “intrinsically disordered.”
Still, Sister Christine Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, a liberal church reform group in the United States, said the pope expressed a principle about the benefits of using condoms to prevent disease that could apply to women too.
“You can probably take from that example and extend that to other examples,” Schenk said. “Clearly, there will be many women who will also be prevented from getting HIV if you look at the principle of what he said.”