THIS WEEK IN GOD…. First up from the God Machine this week is an unexpected announcement Pope Benedict XVI related to contraception and sexual health. By some measures, it’s something of a breakthrough.

Pope Benedict XVI’s recent comments about the use of condoms in select cases apply to women as well as men, the Vatican said Tuesday, a surprising first acknowledgment from the church that condom use can be part of a broader effort at AIDS prevention.

The clarification did not represent a change in church teaching on birth control, which remains forbidden, but it appeared to be a significant first response to critics who have long seen the church’s ban on condoms as a moral failing in light of the AIDS crisis.

The window here is pretty narrow. Benedict was reportedly only referring to prostitutes, and the notion that condom use can help reduce the spread of disease, and in the process, be part of a “moralization” of sexuality.

His comments indicated that even though Benedict was not changing church doctrine, he was raising the possibility that condoms could be a responsible option if used to prevent disease. He was responding to a question about a controversy he set off last year. En route to Africa, Benedict had said that condoms worsened the spread of AIDS, and that it could be prevented only by abstinence and responsibility.

In expressing this new position, the pope, a theologian widely seen as conservative, showed himself to be at once doctrinaire and highly attuned to local realities.

A Vatican spokesperson said the remarks had been offered “colloquially,” not necessarily reflecting the official teachings of the church.

Still, given where the Vatican has been on the issue, it was evidence of at least some progress.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Sen.-elect Marco Rubio (R) of Florida incorporates his religiosity into his political persona, but there’s some question about his religious identity. On the one hand, he describes himself as a “practicing and devout Roman Catholic.” On the other hand, Rubio attends religious services at an evangelical megachurch, affiliated with Southern Baptists, with a theological worldview “plainly at odds with Catholic teaching.”

* The Family Research Council is a religious-right powerhouse in the nation’s capital, known for its hatred for the LGBT community. With FRC leaders escalating their anti-gay rhetoric in recent years, the Southern Poverty Law Center is now designating the Family Research Council as a “hate group.”

* And with some far-right activists already complaining again about American society’s “war on Christmas,” it appears that the Republican National Committee has, surprisingly enough, sided with those rascally secular progressives. The RNC’s website is now selling Republican tree ornaments that read, “Happy Holidays.”

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.