The Roman Catholic Church has taken the first step towards what could be a historic shift away from its total ban on the use of condoms.
Pope Benedict XVI's "health minister" is understood to be urging him to accept that in restricted circumstances -- specifically the prevention of AIDS -- barrier contraception is the lesser of two evils.
The recommendations, which have not been made public, still have to be reviewed by the traditionally conservative Vatican department responsible for safeguarding theological orthodoxy and then by the pope himself, before any decision is made.
The rethink, commissioned by Pope Benedict following his election last year, could save millions of lives around the world.
It was likely to be raised yesterday when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, had his first full discussion with the pope at an audience in the Vatican.
Campaigners and organizations involved in the fight against AIDS have long been pressing the Vatican to change its stance on condoms, which they believe obstructs attempts to save millions of lives. Last year the head of HIV/AIDS at the WHO initiated talks with the Vatican to see if any movement could be made on the issue.
Mexican Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, who heads the papal department responsible for health issues, revealed on Tuesday that he had completed the first stage of the review.
A 200-page report, reflecting opinions within the church, had been sent to the pope and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's "theology ministry," he said.
He did not reveal its conclusions. But Cardinal Barragan is known to favor reform and Vatican sources said it was highly likely that he had come out in support of using condoms in marriages where one of the partners was HIV-positive.
The Italian newspaper La Repubblica, which broke the news of the policy review earlier this year, reported on Wednesday that the Vatican would "go from prohibition to the definition of exceptional cases in which it would be possible for the faithful to use prophylactics to avert fatal risks."
Cardinal Barragan noted a passage from a 1981 document issued by the late pope John Paul II that said "every conjugal act must be open to life."
Until now, this has been interpreted as an injunction against contraception. But it could also be used to support an argument in favor of the preservation of life by the use of barrier methods.
The cardinal said some 40 million people were reckoned to be HIV positive and AIDS was claiming around 8,000 lives a day.
"The disease is not retreating. On the contrary, its aggressiveness seems to be increasing, even though in the more developed countries the strength of the increase is noticed less," he said.
The first-hand experience of Roman Catholic missionaries and pastors in the developing world has been the driving force behind the current rethink. But it is also noted in the Vatican that the pope, when he was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, left open the possibility of a change in the Church's stance.