Vatican City: Anti-AIDS campaigners welcomed on Sunday an easing of the Catholic Church`s blanket ban on condoms, saying comments by Pope Benedict XVI marked an historic break with the past that could save lives.
In a series of interviews to appear in a book published this week, Benedict says for the first time that while the use of condoms should not be seen as a "moral solution", it could be justified in stopping the spread of AIDS.
"In certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, it can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality," said the head of the world`s 1.1 billion Catholics.
But the Vatican moved on Sunday to counter campaigners` claims of a U-turn in Church policy, emphasising in a statement that condom use was acceptable only in highly "exceptional" cases.
"In this, the reasoning of the pope certainly cannot be defined as a revolutionary breakthrough," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi insisted.
Lombardi said the 83-year-old pope was speaking about "an exceptional situation" in one of the interviews in the book "Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times", by German author Peter Seewald.
"The pope considered an exceptional situation in which the exercise of sexuality is a real danger to the life of another," said Lombardi.
The pope used the specific example of a male prostitute using a condom to illustrate his apparent shift in position.
"There may be justified individual cases, for example when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be ... a first bit of responsibility, to re-develop the understanding that not everything is permitted and that one may not do everything one wishes," Benedict was quoted as saying.
"But it is not the proper way to deal with the horror of HIV infection."
The Vatican spokesman said that "in this particular case, the pope does not morally justify the disordered exercise of sexuality, but considers that the use of condoms may be a `first act of responsibility`."
The United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, UNAIDS, welcomed Benedict`s remarks as "a significant and positive step forward taken by the Vatican."
Until now, the Vatican had prohibited the use of any form of contraception -- other than abstinence -- even as a guard against sexually transmitted disease.
The Vatican spokesman played down suggestions that the comments represented a new mood at the Vatican.
"Many moral theologians and influential Church figures have supported and maintain similar positions," said Lombardi.
"It is true, however, that we had not yet heard it with such clarity from the mouth of a pope, even if it`s in a colloquial and non-magesterial form."
In the book, based on 20 hours of interviews conducted by Seewald, Benedict reiterated that condom use alone would not solve the problem of HIV/AIDS. "More must happen," he said.
While some campaigners said that the pope`s comments did not go anywhere near far enough, there was a general consensus they would help in the fight against AIDS.
Benedict`s comments significant: UNAIDS
The head of the UN agency leading the international campaign against AIDS said Benedict`s comments were a "significant and positive step forward".
"This move recognizes that responsible sexual behaviour and the use of condoms have important roles in HIV prevention," said Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hailed the pope`s comments as "welcome" and "realistic".
In South Africa, where an estimated 5.7 million of the 48 million population are HIV positive, there was also a cautious welcome from the main anti-AIDS lobby but a warning that the pope needed to be much more unequivocal.
Veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who helped coordinate the Protest the Pope campaign during Benedict`s state visit to Britain earlier this year, said the comments represented a "volte-face" by the Vatican.
"Benedict seems to realise that his unrelenting, blanket opposition to condoms has damaged his own authority and that of the Church," said Tatchell.