Pope Surprises Critics by Talking Condom Use and Church's Decisions During Holocaust

VIDEO: The pope says using condoms to prevent deadly diseases is a "lesser evil."
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In a new book, Pope Benedict makes what some are calling "revolutionary" admissions on everything from condom use by Catholics to the Church's behavior during the Holocaust.

In "Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Sign of the Times," Benedict condones the use of condoms in some instances.

The pope said that to prevent infection with HIV, for instance in the case of a male prostitute, a condom can be the first step in assuming moral responsibility.

He told German journalist Peter Seewald that a male prostitute using a condom is the "first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality."

It was the Vatican's first exception to a decades old ban on the use of condoms.

Christopher Lamb from Catholic Weekly, The Tablet, said the pope's use of the example of male prostitutes is meant to illustrate one of several cases where condom use is acceptable.

"It was an illustration, because he talks about cases, there being different cases where a condom can be used in certain circumstances. The key thing here is intention," Lamb said. "If the intention here is to preserve life, then that is OK. You can use the condom then."

Pope Not Changing Teachings

Despite the gravity of the statement, there were some glaring omissions. The pope did not condone the use of condoms as birth control and he did not specifically mention female prostitutes.

The Vatican's position on contraception can be traced back more than 800 years when theologians argued against any form of sex not meant to produce children.

Father Joseph Fessio, editor and publisher of Ignatius Press and a friend of the pope's, said Benedict's comments were not meant to open up debate.

"He's not changing church teaching," Fessio said. "What he did say is if someone, a male prostitute for example, who decides to use a condom because he has some glimmer of moral responsibility to prevent disease, that could be a first step towards a greater moral attitude, better moral attitude to sexuality, but in itself the act is still immoral."

While some hope that the pope's words might lead to reform in the Catholic Church, Fessio says that isn't the case.

"I am sure we will not see a change either in this papacy or after this papacy," Fessio said. "The church's teaching is clear. The moral principles are quite solid and it's just a question of explaining it better to the people."

Health Advocates Respond to Pope

Still, saying that condom use to prevent the spread of a deadly disease shows moral responsibility is a first for any pope. UNAIDS, the United Nations HIV program, welcomed the comments as a "significant and positive step forward."

The church has faced intense criticism for its opposition to condoms, despite their proven use preventing the spread of HIV, particularly in Africa, where AIDS has killed tens of millions.

On a trip to Africa last year, Pope Benedict outraged health campaigners by saying condom use may actually worsen the spread of the disease.

The Vatican's hard line has sparked a backlash even from some of its own in Africa, including church-run health clinics that often ignore the teachings and distribute condoms.

Insiders say the pope is saying in public what has long been discussed in private inside the Vatican, where a paper has been considered for years allowing condom use between married couples, when one has AIDS.

The debate continues to sharply divide the Vatican but it could now play out in the open.

Pope on Holocaust Denier Bishop

The book, to be debuted Tuesday by the Vatican, also tackles the pope's decision to lift the excommunication of a bishop accused of being a Holocaust denier.

Benedict tells Seewald that he would never have lifted the excommunication of a bishop who denied the Holocaust if he had known "what sort of person we were dealing with."

Bishop Richard Williamson said in a German TV interview in January 2009 that he didn't believe Jews were gassed during World War II. The interview aired the same day Pope Benedict lifted his excommunication. The uproar from the incident strained the pope's relationship with the Jewish community.

Today, Williamson found himself in even more hot water after the attorney he hired to defend him was linked to the neo-Nazi movement.

World War II Era Pope a 'Righteous Man'

Jewish leaders not only criticized Benedict's decision regarding Williamson but also his stance on World War II-era Pope Pius XII.

In the book, the pope calls Pius XII a "great righteous" man who saved more Jews than anyone else. Pius XII has been criticized by some in the Jewish community for not doing enough to speak out against the mass deportation and killing of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust.

"The decisive thing is what he did and what he tried to do, and on that score, we really must acknowledge, I believe, that he was one of the great righteous men and that he saved more Jews than anyone else," Benedict said in the book.

Last year, the Catholic Church made Pius XII a strong contender for sainthood after the Pope praised his "heroic virtues."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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