The Catholic Church is on the brink of a historic change of approach over condoms which could bring hope to millions in Africa and other parts of the developing world devastated by Aids.
"We are conducting a very profound scientific, technical and moral study," said the head of the Vatican Council for Health Pastoral Care. The church is expected to give a guarded, provisional blessing to the use of condoms by married couples when one of them suffers from Aids, as a way of protecting the health of the other partner. It is only a technical concession, based on two ancient principles, but, against the background of the stolid refusal by church authorities to countenance even the slightest deviation for more than a generation, it amounts to a revolution.
At a time when more than 40 million people are infected with HIV, and there are 13,000 new cases every day, the Vatican has been accused of contributing to the spread of the epidemic by forbidding the use of prophylactics.
According to sources close to the Vatican, a document setting out the new position has already been approved by the health pastoral care office. It awaits review by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and finally the approval of Pope Benedict XVI.
Nothing will be certain until the Pope has signed it. But the fact that the change has got this far, with carefully placed and worded endorsements by half a dozen influential cardinals, is seen as an indication the change is almost certain.
Ever since Pope Paul VI's 1968 encylical Humanae Vitae, contraception has been taboo within the church. But, in 1968, there was no Aids pandemic. The church's policy on condoms has remained one of rigid rejection for more than a generation, while a disaster that could at least have been mitigated, critics charge, by the approval of condom use, hit the developing world.
The change of approach was aired last month by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the retired Archbishop of Milan, who was the favourite of many liberals to succeed John Paul II. Aged 79, Martini is regarded as a dominant figure in the College of Cardinals.
In a written exchange with a surgeon published in the weekly news magazine L'Espresso, Cardinal Martini said: "Certainly the use of prophylactics can, in some situations, constitute a lesser evil. There is the particular situation of spouses, one of whom is affected by Aids. It is the obligation of this spouse to protect the other partner and they must be able to protect themselves."
Cardinal Martini was referring to the legitimacy of self-defence: if a woman's survival is threatened by the sexual advances of her husband, she is justified in defending herself - by persuading the man to use a condom - even if the result is that a potential baby is not conceived.
In 2004, Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragàn, president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care made the same point. He said: "If an infected husband wants to have sex with his wife who isn't infected, then she must defend herself by any means necessary." He went on to say that is consistent with Catholic theology, which teaches acts of self-defence can extend to killing in order not to be killed.
Neither Martini nor Barragan go so far as to advocate the use of condoms - the Vatican "pro-life" policy, according to which the purpose of sex is procreation, remains sacrosanct. But moral nuancing has a long and noble tradition within the church.
"Traditionally, confessors and pastors have long been permitted to counsel a "lesser evil" to prevent greater harm," says John Allen, of the National Catholic Reporter, a US weekly. "For example, if a Mob boss tells a priest he intends to kill an enemy and can't be persuaded to change his mind, the priest could advise him to beat up the enemy instead. The priest is not approving the beating, merely tolerating it to avoid an even worse outcome."
Pope Benedict XVI, who has just completed one year in office, is an unlikely reformer. For decades he was known as his predecessor's hardline "enforcer of the faith". But some Vatican insiders believe the main obstacle to change was John Paul II. Now many believe that Benedict, as a doctrinal purist, is well placed to bring the church's approach fractionally closer to the practice of believers. And to give some very belated support to Catholic healthcare workers in regions where Aids is rampant.
A global problem
WORLD HIV POPULATION:
Africa: 25.8 million
Europe and Central Asia: 1.6m
Latin America: 1.8m
North America and Western Europe: 1.9m
WORLD CATHOLIC POPULATION: 1.3 billion
WORLD AIDS POPULATION: 40 million
* 42 per cent of the world's Catholics live in Latin America, where Aids rates have continued to rise sharply
* With a high Catholic population, the Caribbean is the second worst HIV region, with 2.3 per cent infected
* 60 per cent of the world's HIV population lives in Africa, which is also home to 137 million Catholics
* The number of Catholics in Africa is expected to double by 2025. At the same time, the UN estimates up to 89 million more Africans could die of Aids
* One in three Lesothans are HIV positive. The country is 70 per cent Catholic
* Six per cent of Burundi's population is living with HIV. The country is 63 per cent Catholic
* Brazil, the world's largest Catholic country, has 1.3 million HIV sufferers
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