Using a condom is a lesser evil than transmitting HIV to a sexual partner — male or female —even if that means averting a possible pregnancy, the Vatican said Tuesday, signalling a seismic shift in papal teaching as it further explained Pope Benedict XVI's comments.

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Pope Benedict XVI says condoms use by males and females to prevent HIV transmission is acceptable.

The Vatican has long been criticized for its patent opposition to condom use, particularly in Africa. But the latest interpretation essentially means the Roman Catholic Church is acknowledging that its long-held, anti-birth control stance against condoms doesn't justify putting someone's life at risk.

Benedict said in a book released Tuesday that condom use by people such as male prostitutes was a lesser evil since it indicated they were moving toward a more moral and responsible sexuality by aiming to protect their partner from a deadly infection.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters Tuesday that he asked the Pope whether he intended his comments to only apply to male prostitutes. Benedict replied that it really didn't matter, that the important thing was the person in question took into consideration the life of the other, Lombardi said.

"I personally asked the Pope if there was a serious, important problem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine," Lombardi said. "He told me no. The problem is this.... It's the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship.

"This is if you're a woman, a man, or a transsexual. We're at the same point. The point is it's a first step of taking responsibility, of avoiding passing a grave risk onto another," Lombardi said.