GENEVA – The pope’s positive comments about condom use by male prostitutes will help fight the AIDS crisis, health groups said Sunday, although they cautioned that his remarks fell short of declaring condoms an acceptable method of disease prevention for all.
Speaking to a German journalist whose book was excerpted in a Vatican newspaper Saturday, the pontiff reiterated that condoms are not a moral solution for stopping AIDS. But he added that in some cases, such as for male prostitutes, their use could represent a first step in assuming moral responsibility “in the intention of reducing the risk of infection.”
“This is a significant and positive step forward taken by the Vatican today,” the U.N.’s top AIDS official said. “This move recognizes that responsible sexual behavior and the use of condoms have important roles in HIV prevention.”
A UNAIDS spokesman in Geneva said that while over 80 percent of HIV infections are caused through sexual transmission, only 4 percent to 10 percent result from sex between men. There are no reliable statistics about how many infections might be prevented if male prostitutes routinely used condoms, said Mahesh Mahalingam.
However, even the limited example cited by the pope was a step in the right direction, said Mahalingam. “We are welcoming this as an opening up of discussion,” he told The Associated Press.
In South Africa, which has an estimated 5.7 million HIV-positive citizens — more people than any other country — and 500,000 new infections each year, activists guardedly greeted the Pope’s message.
Caroline Nenguke of the Treatment Action Campaign, a Cape Town, South Africa-based advocacy group for people living with HIV, called the Pope’s words a “step in the right direction.”
But she said the message was unclear, and could lead to misinterpretation.
“It shows that only male prostitutes should use condoms and could make people in heterosexual relations think they are not allowed to (use) them,” she said. “The pope has a lot of followers — he’s an opinion leader and a world leader — and if he’s going to take on a message, especially a message of life and death, it has to be very clear.”
Church members in the Philippines, Southeast Asia’s largest Roman Catholic nation, praised the pontiffs words even as their leaders rejected any suggestion that the Vatican was softening its line on contraceptives.
Housewife Benita Vitualla, 72, expressed relief at the pope’s flexibility, which she said could help people deal with problems like sexually transmitted diseases and surging populations.
“The pope has become more practical; he knows what’s happening to the world,” said Vitualla, who wore rosaries around her neck. “There are contagious diseases and very high population growth that need to be controlled,” she said.
Shay Cullen, a Columban missionary who has helped sexually abused children in the Philippines, praised what he said was a crucial change in the pope’s stand.
“We welcome the pope’s change of opinion because it is meant to save life and to protect people,” Cullen said. “We see here an enlightened pope putting his concern over human life as a priority first.”
While the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on artificial contraception was not in question, Benedict’s stunning remarks could re-ignite debate on contraceptive use in places like the Philippines, where the issue has recently pitted the new president against the influential Catholic church.
Philippines President Benigno Aquino III recently expressed support for the right to contraception. A church official has threatened to launch civil disobedience protests.
“If a condom is used as a contraceptive, certainly it will be condemned by the church,” the Rev. Deogracias Yniguez of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines told the AP. “But to use it to avoid a disease in specific circumstances, the church can take another mindset.”
For those focused on battling the scourge of AIDS, however, the Pope’s message came as a welcome surprise.
Father Peter Makome, a Catholic priest in Zimbabwe, 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 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.”
Sex worker Constance Makoni from the nearby town of Mbare, said she was also pleased to hear the Pope’s message. She said she uses condoms to protect herself against HIV, even though it is against her beliefs.
“It is very good to learn that our church has now come out in the open to allow the use of condoms by its members to prevent the spread of AIDS,” she said. “I think Pope should have made these announcements a long time ago and it was going to be helpful among the church folks.”
But she said she would also like to see papal recognition of contraception.
“If they would also expand this to contraceptives as well, because it’s another form of family planning which is not being discussed,” she said.
In Liberia, some non-Catholic clergymen reacted strongly to the Pope’s statement. The West African nation is predominantly Christian, but Catholics are not the majority.
“I sharply disagree with the Pope,” said Rev. Venicious Reeves, a popular Pentecostal preacher in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. “The Pope should instead encourage people he classifies as male prostitutes to get out of prostitution and live in morality.”
Baptist preacher Rev. Gardea Johnson asked: “If his concern is about male prostitutes, what about the female ones who are even more vulnerable?”
But Winston Kerkula, a rights advocate based in the central Liberian town of Gbarnga, supported the Pope.
“In the past, the Catholic church’s position on the use of condoms divided the thinking of people about AIDS and its spread worldwide,” Kerkula said. “The Pope’s change of mind is good for mainly young people; I urge the Vatican to encourage condom-producing companies to produce more so that it can reach young people in rural places.”
In the central Swiss city of Lucerne, where the majority of the population identifies itself as Roman Catholic, a church spokesman said the Pope’s remarks would come as a relief to many believers.
“We are happy that this discussion, which already existed in the church because several bishops have talked about it, has been picked up by the Pope,” said Florian Flohr.
Catholic churches in Lucerne raised eyebrows last month when they distributed some 3,000 condoms as part of an outreach program aimed at young people.
“We think what the Pope said confirms our view that if you want to talk about AIDS, you have to talk about condoms,” said Flohr.
He added that the pontiff’s words had been carefully chosen to avoid the impression that condoms could be seen as a panacea against AIDS, while at the same time deflecting long-standing criticism at the Vatican’s absolutist stance on condom use.
“I think many Catholics will be relieved,” said Flohr. “His past comments about condoms meant there couldn’t be a proper discussion about the subject. Now we can talk about human sexuality more openly.”
In Britain, where the Vatican’s opposition to condom use has come under particularly fierce criticism, relief over the pope’s statement was tempered with caution over the relatively limited scope of his comments.
Peter Tatchell, who helped coordinate the protests against Benedict when the latter visited Britain earlier this year, said the new papal policy on condoms amounted to a “volte-face.”
“He seems to be admitting, for the first time, that using condoms can be morally responsible if they help save lives,” Tatchell said in an e-mail. But he went on to slam the Vatican for a range of positions on a variety of moral issues.
“If the pope can change his stance on condoms, why can’t he also modify the Vatican’s harsh, intolerant opposition to women’s rights, gay equality, fertility treatment and embryonic stem cell research?”
British AIDS charities welcomed the move. The Terrance Higgins Trust, one of the first groups organized to fight the virus in the U.K., said it was relieved that the pope “has accepted the reality that condoms are a major weapon in the fight against HIV.”
Gomez contributed from Manila, Philippines. Associated Press writers Jenny Gross in Johannesburg; Chengetai Zvauya in Harare, Zimbabwe; Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Monrovia, Liberia; and Raphael G. Satter in London contributed to this report.