NEW YORK – Faced with a changing outlook from Pope Benedict XVI on condoms and their role in preventing the spread of HIV, many prominent conservative Roman Catholics in the U.S. are rejecting the Vatican's own explanation of what the pope said.
Several orthodox Catholics said they would only accept a more formal papal pronouncement. Others insisted that journalists were purposely misrepresenting Benedict's comments. Some questioned whether the papal spokesman, the Rev. Frederico Lombardi, accurately quoted the pope.
Bishops and the experts who advise them were scrambling to make sense of the news.
"It's a mess," said John Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, which advises church leaders, hospitals and Vatican offices. "I'm not ready to say that the pope said what Lombardi said."
The uproar is over comments Benedict made in the new book, "Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times." In an exchange with the author about AIDS in Africa, Benedict said that for some people, such as male prostitutes, using condoms could be a step in assuming moral responsibility because the intent is to "reduce the risk of infection."
At a news conference Tuesday in Rome, Lombardi said Benedict knew his comments would provoke intense debate, and that the pope meant for his remarks to apply not just to male prostitutes, but also "if you're a man, a woman, or a transsexual."
The pope did not suggest using condoms as birth control, which is banned by the Roman Catholic Church, and said condoms were not a "real or moral solution" to the AIDS crisis.
Still, his remarks were a watershed in the long debate among theologians and church officials over the morality of using condoms for disease prevention.
Jenn Giroux, executive director of Human Life International America, which promotes Catholic teaching on contraception, abortion and other moral issues, said more clarification from the Vatican was needed.
"I am watching very carefully, as everyone is right now, before making a final pronouncement," said Giroux, a registered nurse and mother of nine. "We just got something from a spokesperson. As always, we look to church doctrine on statements like this."
Germain Grisez, a prominent moral theologian who advises bishops, said that promoting condoms as protection against disease would be "pernicious" because it assumes a person does not have the capacity to make good, moral choices. He lamented that the pope's comments "can be — and are being — misused to sow doubt about Catholic teaching."
"Many of Jesus' own sayings were misused, and he no doubt foresaw that they would be misused. But he nevertheless said what he thought would lead to salvation those who were open to his teaching," Grisez wrote in an e-mail. "I assume that Pope Benedict's intention in speaking out as he does is similar to Jesus' intention. But Benedict's judgment about what to say may not be as sound as Jesus' judgment was."
Haas, also a moral theologian, said he fielded calls all day Tuesday from bishops confused by what Lombardi had said. Benedict's comments come at a time when bishops in the United States are intensely focused on upholding Catholic orthodoxy on marriage and sexuality.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not respond to requests Tuesday for comment.
Philip Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, demanded the resignation of the editor of the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, after the daily printed the pope's quotes on condoms and other topics in a Saturday edition, despite an embargo on the much-anticipated book.
Lawler and many other orthodox Catholics argued that the newspaper undermined the pope by quoting him without the proper context. Lawler stood by his criticism and call for the editor's resignation after Lombardi's news conference Tuesday.
"I think the clarification was confusing and frustrating," Lawler said.
Catholic teaching has never totally barred condom use for protection against HIV and the Vatican has no official, authoritative policy on the issue.
In 1987, the U.S. bishops' conference issued the statement, "The Many Face of AIDS," that stressed limiting sex to marriage as the best protection against the virus, but said public education "could include accurate information about prophylactic devices" to prevent transmission. The document was criticized at the time by conservatives and some Vatican officials.
Years ago, Vatican officials reportedly began studying the topic, with the goal of writing a document on the morality of condom use as protection against AIDS, but no statement was issued.
The pope's comments in a book interview do not amount to an official teaching, a point conservative Catholics made repeatedly and vociferously Tuesday. They argued that the pope was only noting that by using a condom, a person with HIV is displaying some moral sense about the consequences of his behavior.
"I maintain that nothing new has happened, that the church's teaching hasn't changed," said the Rev. Joseph Fessio of Ignatius Press, the English publisher of the book, in a phone interview from Rome.
Yet, the pope's remarks are still seen as significant and must be analyzed and explained by church leaders. U.S. bishops oversee AIDS care programs through local and national Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services. In a brief statement, Catholic Relief Services said, "Our current policy holds: we do not purchase, distribute or promote the use of condoms."
Very few U.S. bishops or church officials have commented since the pope's remarks were published last Saturday.
"We're in for a long period of confusion," said Russell Shaw, a writer for the Catholic publication Our Sunday Visitor and former spokesman for the U.S. bishops' conference. "The bishops — and clergy especially — will have to go home now to their own dioceses and whether they like it or not start speaking very clearly about what just happened."