Pope Benedict XVI sought to "kick-start a debate" when he said some condom use may be justified, Vatican insiders say, raising hopes the church may be starting to back away from a complete ban that would allow condoms to play a role in the battle against AIDS.
Just a year after he said condoms could be making the AIDS crisis worse, Benedict said that for some people, such as male prostitutes, using them could represent a first step in assuming moral responsibility because the intent is to "reduce the risk of infection."
The pope did not suggest using condoms as birth control, which is banned by the church, or mention the use of condoms by married couples where one partner is infected.
Still, some saw the pope's comments as an attempt to move the church forward on the issue of condoms and health risks.
For years divisions in the Vatican have held up any effort to reconcile the church's ban on contraception with the need to help halt the spread of AIDS. Theologians have studied the possibility of condoning limited condom use as a lesser evil, and reports years ago said the Vatican was considering a document on the issue, though opposition apparently blocked publication.
One senior Vatican official said Monday he believed the pope just "wanted to kick-start the debate." He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
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, the Holy See's chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, rushed out a statement to counter any impression the church might lift its ban on artificial birth control. Lombardi stressed the pope's comment neither "reforms nor changes" church teaching.
While much of the world hailed Benedict's statement as a major shift toward lifting the church ban, conservatives insisted the pontiff was not "justifying" condom use from a theological point of view.
Many Vatican observers were struck by the example the pope used -- that of a male prostitute -- though the comments clearly were not meant to condone prostitution or homosexual conduct, which the church condemns as "intrinsically disordered."
And while Benedict made only a tiny opening, he stepped where no pope has gone since Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical "Humanae Vitae," which was supposed to have closed debate on church policy barring Catholics from using condoms and other artificial contraception.
Notably, the pope chose to make his statement in an interview with a German journalist, Peter Seewald, and not in an official document. Excerpts of Seewald's book, "Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times," first appeared Saturday in the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.
Luigi Accattoli, a veteran Vatican journalist who will be on a Vatican panel launching the book Tuesday, said Benedict had taken a "long-awaited" step that only the highest authority of the church could do."
Also on the panel is an influential prelate who showed his independence last year when he argued that Brazilian doctors should not be excommunicated for aborting the twin fetuses of a 9-year-old child who was allegedly raped by her stepfather. Monsignor Rino Fisichella argued the doctors were saving the girl's life and should be shown mercy; he was forced out as head of the Vatican's bioethics advisory committee for his stance.
The conservative Benedict previously had shown 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.
However, Seewald 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. 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, 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."
"The fact that the Vatican is demonstrating any flexibility at all, and is considering the real-world use of condoms, is encouraging," Kelly said.
"Some of the churches there have been actively campaigning against condom use," he added. "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."
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."
Associated Press religion writer Rachel Zoll in New York and medical writer Maria Cheng in London contributed to this report.