Confusion reigns at Pope's move to relax Catholic ban on condoms
Calls for Benedict to clarify latest controversy
The Pope last night faced calls to clarify his stance on condoms as confusion reigned over exactly what he meant when he said that they could be used by Roman Catholics in "certain cases".
In a book to be published tomorrow, Benedict XVI said there could be "justified individual cases" in which condoms could be used, softening Rome's blanket ban on contraception, one of the most controversial issues facing the Catholic Church.
"In certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, it can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality," the head of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics said, giving as an example a male prostitute having sex with a client.
But he gave no guidance on the long-standing moral and religious question of whether it would be permissible for a married couple, in which one partner is HIV-positive, to use condoms in order to prevent the other partner from becoming infected.
Nor was it even clear whether the liberalisation applied only to male sex workers -- the original German version of the book, as well as its French and English translations, quoted the Pope as referring to a male prostitute, but an excerpt in Italian in the Vatican's newspaper, 'L'Osservatore Romano', referred to a female prostitute.
UNAIDS, the United Nations agency on fighting AIDS, said that only four to 10pc of HIV infections are a result of sex between men, and there were no reliable statistics about how many infections might be prevented if male prostitutes routinely used condoms.
The fact that as recently as last year the Pope, at the start of a trip to Africa, said that condoms could "aggravate" the problem of AIDS, only added to the confusion.
While the shift was welcomed by AIDS campaigners around the world, some theologians said it highlighted the confusion over the church's stance on condom use.
They said the ambiguity of the Pope's declaration could be a Pandora's box, convincing ordinary Catholics that condom use was now permissible in a much wider range of circumstances.
"It will from now on be harder than ever to justify the idea that condoms may not be used by married couples with discordant HIV status," said Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith, a British priest and leading moral theologian.
"The central point here is that such couples are not using condoms as a method of contraception, but rather as a means of preventing the virus spreading."
He said that confusion on the question already existed in the church and called for a "long overdue" statement from Rome.
The Vatican insisted yesterday that the use of condoms was only permissible in "exceptional" cases but did little to clarify the apparent volte-face.
But Jon O'Brien, president of the US-based Catholics for choice campaign, said the confusion had been created by Vatican traditionalists attempting to "control and contain" the Pope's message.
Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, said the Pope's comments were a "significant and positive step forward".
"This move recognises that responsible sexual behaviour and the use of condoms have important roles in HIV prevention," he said.
Meanwhile, a leading Irish missionary priest last night predicted the Pope's relaxing of the ban on condoms would have little impact on the spread of AIDS in Africa.
Fr Eamon Aylward, the head of the Irish Missionary Union which represents more than 60 missionary groups, said he believed Pope Benedict XVI's comments had been misinterpreted by the western media.
Speaking to the Irish Independent Fr Aylward described "the whole thing as a red herring", adding that the remarks were a "long way from earth-shattering", particularly for Africans for whom condoms were a "non-issue".
But the Irish overseas charity Concern welcomed the Pope's remarks, particularly as they were made just ahead of World Aids Day on December 1.
Breda Gahan, Concern's global AIDS adviser, stressed that prevention was always better than cure.
The Pope made his remarks in response to a general question about Africa, where the spread of heterosexual HIV is rampant.
More than 12 million children have lost one or both parents to AIDS infection and thousands of people are newly infected every day.
Church teaching has long opposed artificial contraception, although the Vatican has never released an explicit policy about condoms and HIV.