MANILA, Philippines—Some church members in Southeast Asia’s largest Roman Catholic nation praised Pope Benedict XVI for saying condom use might be justified in some cases, though Filipino bishops stressed Sunday the church leader still opposes contraceptives.
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.”
The U.N. AIDS agency welcomed the pope’s comments but cautioned they were only a first step toward making the use of condoms acceptable among Catholics.
“This is a significant and positive step forward taken by the Vatican today,” the executive director of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibe, said in a statement released Sunday. “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 said.
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.
“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 Associated Press. “But to use it to avoid a disease in specific circumstances, the church can take another mindset.”
Such rare cases, however, should be spelled out by church leaders now that the pontiff has apparently cited an example, he said, adding that he had not yet read the pope’s full remarks.
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.”
Businessman George Gueco said the pope’s remarks did not amount to any change in the Catholic church’s long-standing stance against contraceptives, a position he strongly backs.
“There may be extreme, extreme exemptions for the church to allow its use,” Gueco said. “I’m thinking hard, but I can’t think of any right now.”
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.
Public debate over condom use has simmered in the predominantly Catholic Philippines since President Benigno Aquino III recently expressed support for the right to contraception. A church official has threatened to launch civil disobedience protests.
Aiming to avoid a head-on collision with the Roman Catholic Church, Aquino met Catholic bishops last month and explained that he was leaving it to Filipino couples to choose family planning options, including artificial birth control.