GENEVA — Roman Catholic believers and leaders in parts of the world most stricken by AIDS drew hope from Pope Benedict XVI's recent comments on condoms, even if the Vatican took pains to explain that nothing has changed about its policy on contraception.
For those focused on battling the scourge of AIDS, the Pope's message that condoms could be used in some limited cases 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.”
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 in some cases, such as for male prostitutes, he said their use could represent a first step in assuming moral responsibility “in the intention of reducing the risk of infection.”
Sex worker Constance Makoni, from the town of Mbare in Zimbabwe, said she was pleased to hear the Pope's message. She said she uses condoms to protect herself against HIV, even though it is against her beliefs.
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.
The U.N. agency tasked with combating AIDS said they were “a significant and positive step” but noted that while over 80 percent of HIV infections are caused through sexual transmission, only 4 percent to 10 percent result from sex between men.
Caroline Nenguke of the Treatment Action Campaign, an advocacy group in Cape Town for people living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, called the pope's words a “step in the right direction.”
Still, she said the message was unclear, and could lead to misinterpretation, particularly among heterosexual couples. “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.”
The Vatican's chief spokesman sought to downplay the pope's comments Sunday, saying they shouldn't be seen as “reforming or changing” the Church's teaching, which forbids use of condoms and other contraceptives.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi said in a statement that the church doesn't consider condoms the “moral solution” to the AIDS problem.
Father Antoine Lion, a Dominican priest in Paris and founder of the French association “Christians and AIDS” , said the pope's comments open a breach in church doctrine, which previously opposed condom use under all circumstances.
“Some positions — positions that gravely harmed prevention efforts of Christians themselves — lose their legitimacy,” he 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 stance.
“We see here an enlightened pope putting his concern over human life as a priority first,” Cullen said.
The pope's words were most likely to have an impact in countries where his authority is still strong, said one Catholic scholar.
“It is important to bring this message in countries like Africa or for example, Latin America — places where the opinion of the pope still counts for a lot,” said Rik Torfs, the chairman of the Canon Law Faculty at the Catholic University of Leuven, one of the pre-eminent Roman Catholic universities in the world.
“Perhaps this is the start of a more reasonable and realistic attitude toward this subject,” Torfs, who is also a senator for the Christian Democrat CD&V, said on VTM television.
Inevitably, many Catholics 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. “We are happy he has changed his mind.”
His wife, Felicia Oyoma agreed.
“It is good to use condoms to protect against infections and unwanted pregnancies,” she said. “I am against abortion, so it is better to use a condom.”
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.”
In the central Swiss city of Lucerne, where the majority of the population identifies itself as Roman Catholic, one church official said the Pope's remarks would come as a relief to many believers.
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.
“If you want to talk about AIDS, you have to talk about condoms,” said church spokesman Florian Flohr.