Opaque as it is, Pope Benedict XVI's statement that condom use might be justified to prevent the transmission of AIDS is a significant development. His fellow bishops, especially those in Africa, should feel liberated to apply the pope's observation to a public health effort that has been hampered by the Vatican's dogmatism.
As his critics point out, the pope's comments — in a newly published book of interviews — fell short of endorsing widespread use of prophylactics to prevent the transmission of AIDS and other diseases, and they certainly didn't question the church's opposition to contraception. But they contrast dramatically with his insistence last year that society "can't resolve [the AIDS epidemic] with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem." No amount of spin by church officials can disguise that change. (The Vatican spokesman said that "the pope is not reforming or changing the teaching of the church.")
The pope's actual words were characteristically elliptical. He told an interviewer: "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." He added that "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."