VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI has opened the door on the previously taboo subject of condoms as a way to fight HIV, saying male prostitutes who use condoms may be beginning to act responsibly. It’s a stunning comment for a pontiff who has blamed condoms for making the AIDS crisis worse.

The pope made the comments in an interview with a journalist. published as the book “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times,” which is being released Tuesday. The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano ran excerpts Saturday.

Church teaching has long opposed condoms because they are a form of artificial contraception, although the Vatican has never released an explicit policy about condoms and HIV. The Vatican has been harshly criticized for its position.

Benedict said that condoms are not a moral solution to stopping AIDS. But 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,” he said.

Benedict made the comment in response to a general question about Africa, where heterosexual HIV spread is rampant.

He used as a specific example male prostitutes, for whom contraception is not usually an issue, but did not mention married couples where one spouse is infected. The Vatican has faced pressure from even church officials to condone condom use for such monogamous married couples to protect the uninfected spouse from transmission.

Benedict drew the wrath of the United Nations, European governments and AIDS activists when, en route to Africa in 2009, he said that the continent’s AIDS problem couldn’t be resolved by distributing condoms. “On the contrary, it increases the problem,” he said then.

German journalist Peter Seewald, who interviewed Benedict over the course of six days this summer, raised the Africa condom comments, asking him if it wasn’t “madness” for the Vatican to forbid a high-risk population from using condoms.

“There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility,” Benedict said.

Asked if that meant that the church wasn’t opposed on principle to condoms, the pope replied:

The church “of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but in this or that case, there can be nonetheless in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality,” according to an English translation of the book obtained by The Associated Press.

Elsewhere in the book, the pope reaffirmed church teaching opposing artificial contraception. “How many children are killed who might one day have been geniuses?” he asked rhetorically.

He reiterated the church’s position that abstinence and marital fidelity are the only sure ways to prevent HIV.

The book’s English publisher, the Rev. Joseph Fessio, said the pope was not justifying condom use as a lesser of two evils.

Rather, “The intention of protecting the other from disease, of using a condom, may be a sign of an awakening moral responsibility,” Fessio said.

However, the Rev. Jim Martin, a Catholic writer, said the comments were certainly an exception where there had never been an exception before.

“While some bishops and archbishops have spoken in this way, the pope has never affirmed this,” Martin said. “And it’s interesting that he uses as an example someone who is trying to act morally to someone else by not passing on an infection, which was always the stance of those people who favored condoms in cases of HIV and AIDS. So it does mark a departure.”

The English translation of the original German specified “male prostitute.” The Italian translation in L’Osservatore Romano, however, used the feminine “prostitute.” The discrepancy wasn’t immediately clear.

Cardinal Elio Sgreccia, the Vatican’s top official on bioethics and sexuality, elaborated on the pontiff’s comments, stressing that it was imperative to “make certain that this is the only way to save a life.” Sgreccia told the Italian news agency ANSA that that is why the pope on the condom issue “dealt with it in the realm of the exceptional.”

According to Sgreccia, “If Benedict XVI raised the question of exceptions, this exception must be accepted and it must be verified that this is the only way to save life. This must be demonstrated.”

In the 1960s, the Vatican itself condoned giving contraceptive pills to nuns at risk of rape by fighters in the Congo to prevent pregnancy, arguing that the contraception was a lesser evil than pregnancy.

In Africa, Benedict’s comments drew praise among gays and AIDS activists.

“It’s accepting the reality on the ground. If the church has failed to get people to follow its moral values and practice abstinence, they should take the next best step and encourage condom use,” said David Kamau, who heads the nonprofit Kenya Treatment Access Movement.

But Solomon Male, an evangelist pastor in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, said the pope shouldn’t grant any recognition of or encouragement to gays.

“If the pope is saying so, then he has not read the Bible,” he said. “Gay acts are bad. It is abominable and should not take place.”