VATICAN CITY – Vatican officials insist it's nothing "revolutionary," but to many other people Pope Benedict XVI's recent comments regarding condom use mark an important moment in the battle against AIDS and an effort by the pontiff to burnish his image and legacy.
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 "in the intention of reducing the risk of infection."
The Vatican's ban on contraception remains, but Alberto Melloni, an Italian church historian, said Benedict "opened without a doubt a crack that cannot help but have consequences."
Benedict stepped where no pope has gone since Paul VI's famous 1968 encyclical "Humanae Vitae" barred Catholics from using condoms and other artificial contraception. Pressure to lift the ban has grown with the spread of the HIV virus, which has infected some 60 million people worldwide and led to 25 million AIDS-related deaths over three decades.
The pope chose to make his statement not in an official document but in an interview with a German journalist, Peter Seewald, that is coming out this week in the book "Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times." L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, published excerpts Saturday.
The pope says in his own writings that he takes personal responsibility for the remarks, meaning they are not official church teaching.
The conservative Benedict previously had given little sign of budging on the issue of condoms. Last year while en route to Africa, the continent HIV has hit hardest by far, he drew criticism from many health workers by saying condoms not only did not help stop the spread of AIDS but exacerbated the problem.
A number of top churchmen, including the Italian Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, one of Benedict's rivals during his 2005 election as pope, have been calling for a humanitarian gesture on the issue of condoms. Others, including prelates in Africa, have said condom use is worth considering when one partner in a marriage is HIV positive.
Benedict did not address such cases in his interview, and he reaffirmed church teaching against artificial contraception. But he said, "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."
Asked if that meant that the church wasn't opposed in principle to condoms, the pope replied:
The church "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," according to an English translation of the book obtained by The Associated Press.
The Holy See's chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, issued a statement stressing that the pope's comment neither "reforms or changes" church teaching. "The reasoning of the pope cannot certainly be defined as a revolutionary turn," he said.
Many Catholics, however, saw the remarks as a signal that the Vatican is softening its stance on condom use in general.
"It was well said. I believe you have to try to protect yourself against AIDS," 50-year-old Andrew Oyoma said after participating in Sunday Mass at St. Eugenia Catholic Church in Stockholm, Sweden.
In Zimbabwe, where roughly 15 percent of adults have the HIV virus, a Catholic priest said he would spread the news.
"I've got brothers and sisters and friends who are suffering from HIV because they were not practicing safe sex," said the Rev. Peter Makome, who works in the capital Harare's Southerton Parish. "Now the message has come out that they can go ahead and do safe sex; it's much better for everyone."
The U.N. agency tasked with combating AIDS said the pope's comments were "a significant and positive step" but noted that while more than 80 percent of HIV infections are caused through sexual transmission, only 4 percent to 10 percent result from sex between men.
Benedict has a reputation as a shy intellectual, and the interview was clearly an attempt to show a more human, more modern thinker. The pope, who is 83, spoke of his getting old, and went on to say that popes who are no longer physically able to carry on their missions have an obligation to resign.
Benedict has endured several crises since becoming pope in 2005, including his lifting of the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop, a speech early in his papacy in which he linked Islam to violence, and revelations of widespread sex abuse by Catholic clergy around the world. His own handling of a case while a bishop in his native Germany raised questions.
Even his comments about condoms turned into something of a PR gaffe with questionable translations in the Italian version that made the remarks appear stronger than they were.
The Italian version said there may be some "justified" cases, while the original German and English texts were less direct, saying "there may be a basis in the case of some individuals."
Dr. John Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethic Center in the United States, said that when L'Osservatore published the excerpts in advance of publication he wondered "had the Vatican lost its collective head."
Or, said Hass, who insists the pope made no change in policy, "there may be an agenda. I am utterly baffled."
Associated Press writers Chengetai Zvauya in Harare, Zimbabwe, and Malin Rising in Stockholm contributed to this report.