VATICAN CITY - The Vatican on Tuesday sought to clarify the pope's controversial comments about condoms and HIV, saying he by no means suggested condom use could be condoned as a means of avoiding pregnancy.
The Vatican's moral watchdog, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a statement Tuesday saying some commentators had misunderstood and misrepresented the pope's remarks in a book-length interview released last month entitled Light of the World.
The Vatican has been under pressure from conservative theologians to issue such a clarification amid widespread confusion about what Pope Benedict XVI meant and whether he was breaking with church teaching.
In the book, Benedict said that condoms weren't the real or moral solution to battling HIV and AIDS. But he said that condom use in some cases, such as for male prostitutes, could be a first step toward a more moral and responsible human sexuality. The Vatican statement reaffirmed that the church considered prostitution "gravely immoral."
"However, those involved in prostitution who are HIV-positive and who seek to diminish the risk of contagion by the use of a condom may be taking the first step in respecting the life of another even if the evil of prostitution remains in all its gravity," the statement said. It insisted that Benedict's statement was "in full conformity with the moral theological tradition of the church."
The pope's remarks have been mired in confusion ever since they were first published in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano on Nov. 20. Moral theologians have since filled blogs and religious publications with interpretations and counter-interpretations, with many questioning whether the pontiff should have even broached the issue in such a casual way, given the nuance of his message and the risk that it would be misinterpreted.
In the new statement, the Vatican didn't specify whether the prostitute was male or female, referring only to "those involved in prostitution." But it stressed that Benedict was not talking about sex between husband and wife or condom use as a form of contraception.
"The idea that anyone could deduce from the words of Benedict XVI that it is somehow legitimate, in certain situations, to use condoms to avoid an unwanted pregnancy is completely arbitrary and is in no way justified either by his words or in his thought," the statement said.
Reports of the pope's comments had been greeted with relief among AIDS activists and among some church personnel working the front lines in Africa, where UNAIDS estimates that 22.4 million people are infected with HIV.