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VATICAN CITY (AP) - Using a condom is a lesser evil than transmitting HIV to asexual partner - even if that means a woman averting a possiblepregnancy, the Vatican said Tuesday, signaling a seismic shift inpapal teaching as it further explained Pope Benedict XVI'scomments.
The Vatican has long been criticized for its patent oppositionto condom use, particularly in Africa where AIDS is rampant. Butthe latest interpretation of Benedict's comments about condoms andHIV essentially means the Roman Catholic Church is acknowledgingthat its long-held, anti-birth control stance against condomsdoesn't justify putting someone's life at risk.
"This is a game-changer," said the Rev. Jim Martin, a Jesuiteditor and writer.
Benedict said in a book released Tuesday that condom use bypeople such as male prostitutes was a lesser evil since itindicated they were moving toward a more moral and responsiblesexuality by aiming to protect their partner from a deadlyinfection.
His comments implied that he was referring primarily tohomosexual sex, when condoms aren't being used as a form ofcontraception.
Questions arose immediately about the pope's intent, though,because the Italian translation of the book used the feminine forprostitute, whereas the original German used the masculine.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, toldreporters Tuesday that he asked the pope whether he intended hiscomments to only apply to male prostitutes. Benedict replied thatit really didn't matter, that the important thing was the person inquestion took into consideration the life of the other, Lombardisaid.
"I personally asked the pope if there was a serious, importantproblem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine," Lombardisaid. "He told me no. The problem is this ... It's the first stepof taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk ofthe life of another with whom you have a relationship."
"This is if you're a man, a woman, or a transsexual. We're atthe same point. The point is it's a first step of takingresponsibility, of avoiding passing a grave risk onto another,"Lombardi said.
The clarification is significant.
UNAIDS estimates that 22.4 million people in Africa are infectedwith HIV, and that 54 percent - or 12.1 million - are women.Heterosexual transmission of HIV and multiple, heterosexualpartners are believed to be a major cause of the high infectionrates in Africa.
Benedict drew the wrath of the United Nations, Europeangovernments and AIDS activists when, en route to Africa in 2009, hetold reporters that the AIDS problem on the continent couldn't beresolved by distributing condoms. "On the contrary, it increasesthe problem," he said then.
In Africa on Tuesday, AIDS activists, clerics and ordinaryAfricans 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. Shesaid the pope's statement may prompt many people to "adopt a simplelifestyle strategy to protect themselves."
In Sierra Leone, the director of the National AIDS Secretariatpredicted condom use would now increase, lowering the number of newinfections.
"Once the pope has made a pronouncement, his priests will be inthe 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 commentswould provoke debate and discussion. Conservative Catholics havebeen trying to minimize the scope of what he said since theweekend. Lombardi, though, praised Benedict for his "courage" inconfronting the problem.
"He did it because he believed that it was a serious, importantquestion in the world of today," Lombardi said, adding that thepope wanted to give his perspective on the need for a greaterhumanized, responsible sexuality.
In the book, the pope was not justifying or condoning gay sex orheterosexual sex outside of a marriage. Elsewhere in it, hereaffirms the Vatican opposition to homosexual acts and artificialcontraception and reaffirms the inviolability of marriage betweenman 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 passingHIV onto a partner even when pregnancy is possible.
"By acknowledging that condoms help prevent spread of HIVbetween people in sexual relationships, the pope has completelychanged 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 introducingrelationships that could lead to childbirth," he said.
While the lesser evil concept has long been a tenet of moraltheology, the pope's book "Light of the World" - a series ofinterviews with a German journalist - marked the first time a popehad ever publicly applied the theory to condom use as a way tofight HIV transmission.
Individual bishops and theologians have applied that theory tothe condom HIV issue, but it had previously been rejected at thehighest levels of the Vatican, Martin said.
"He is affirming that the use of condoms can prevent the spreadof HIV within sexual relationships, which is brand new for theVatican at that level to be speaking about," he said.
Monsignor Jacques Suaudeau, an expert at the Vatican's bioethicsadvisory board, said the pope was articulating the idea in churchteaching - long practiced by some church officials with regards tocondoms - that there are degrees of evil.
"Contraception is not the worst evil. The church does not see itas good, but the church does not see it as the worst," he told TheAssociated Press. "Abortion is far worse. Passing on HIV iscriminal. That is absolute irresponsibility."
He said the pope broached the topic because questions aboutcondoms and AIDS persisted.
"This pope gave this interview. He was not foolish. It wasintentional. He thought that this was a way of bringing up manyquestions. Why? Because it's true that the church sometimes has notbeen 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 beunderstood by the general public. Vatican officials, however, saidthat was what he meant.
"The contribution the pope wanted to give is not a technicaldiscussion with scientific language on moral problems," Lombardisaid. "This is not the job of a book like of this type."
Luigi Accatoli, a veteran Vatican journalist who was on theVatican panel to launch the book, put it this way:
"He spoke with caution and courage of a pragmatic way throughwhich missionaries and other ecclesial workers can help to defeatthe pandemic of AIDS without approving but also without excluding -in particular cases - the use of a condom," Accatoli said.
Associated Press reporters Victor L. Simpson in Rome and JasonStraziuso in Nairobi contributed to this report.