Pope Benedict XVI set off a firestorm this week when the Vatican released excerpts from a new book in which the pontiff obliquely says that HIV prevention might be a reason for condoms.
"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," he said in Peter Seewald's book, "The Light of the World."
The author then asks him, "Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?" To which the pope replies, "She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality."
Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, which has often tangled with the Vatican, welcomed Pope Benedict XVI's acknowledgment that "condoms have a role to play in preventing the transmission of HIV."
"We are delighted that the pope has acknowledged that condoms can help reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. It is a marvelous victory for common sense and reason and a major step forward towards recognizing that condom use can play a vital role in reducing the future impact of the HIV pandemic," O'Brien said in a statement to the media.
O'Brien said it was an "admission" by the Catholic hierarchy in "addressing the realities about sex and sexuality."
The Catholics for Choice leader said condoms should be available for men - and women.
The Catholic Church, through its global network of aid agencies and other charities, is, despite its official stance, one of the largest HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention programs in the world.
O'Brien, whose organization has been involved in HIV prevention for 25 years, said the ban on condoms by the hierarchy forces Catholic aid workers to hand out condoms in secret.
The pope's statement will be "especially significant for the many, many people who work for Catholic aid agencies and have been secretly handing out condoms while fearing that they will lose their jobs," O'Brien said, adding that U.S. taxpayer money earmarked for Catholic agencies should "be used to fund comprehensive prevention programs."
The pope's statements are evasive enough to be open to other interpretations.
Writing for Foreign Policy, Joshua Keating says the pope did not justify the use of condoms in HIV prevention. "I don't read this as arguing that male prostitutes are justified in using protection, but rather that it could be a stepping-stone toward giving up their behavior," he said.
Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Dish focused on the angle of homosexuality. "His holiness thought of male prostitutes for some reason," he says with tongue in cheek
But Sullivan claims it was a "revolutionary" step in church thought that any kind of gay sex may even be on the church's moral spectrum. "Previously, it was simply: whatever you do is so vile none of it can be moral. Now, it appears to be: even in a sexual encounter between a prostitute and his john there is a spectrum of moral conduct."
There were reports that blamed translation problems and the pope actually referred to a female prostitute.
Regardless, the Vatican was quick to walk back any liberal interpretations. An official spokesman said condoms could be used only in "exceptional" situations.
But the pontiff's statement seemed an about face from his utterance last year during a trip to Africa, when he said condom use "increases the problem" of HIV/AIDS.
The church forbids condom use as a method of birth control and says only abstinence and/or fidelity are the only way to prevent HIV.
Some analysts see the most recent uproar as part of a larger pattern of erratic behavior by a church hierarchy in decline, caught in a turmoil caused by the global pedophilia-and-cover-up scandal. In addition, the church leaders worry about a decline of membership, a shortage of new priests and demands from the rank-and-file for modernization of church doctrine to be more relevant to real life.
"It seems that the pope is trying to move in different directions, appease different sectors of the Church, and all the while claim he's never changed his point of view," one analyst said.