Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
November 24th, 2010

Commenting on Condoms

What would St. Francis do?



Recently, on a pilgrimage in Italy, I heard a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal relay in a homily one of the many stories of St. Francis of Assisi that raised medieval eyebrows. A gang of robbers, known to not only rob but also kill their victims, was terrorizing the local towns. Francis gathered his friars and encouraged them to visit the remote homes of those alleged to be responsible for the attacks. He instructed his friars bring bread on their first visit. On the second trip, they were to bring bread and wine. The third visit, they were to bring bread and wine, and then ask of their hosts a special favor: if they were going to rob people, at least spare them their lives and commit no physical violence against them.

The intention of Francis was not to condone robbery. Rather, it was one of many examples of his understanding and acceptance of human nature. A “cease and desist” order would likely be ignored. Asking the robbers to take a first step, curtailing death and injury, was more likely to be considered. It was, at its core, an opportunity to embark on a different journey.

I was reminded of that message this week when news broke of Pope Benedict’s tacit endorsement of the use of condoms in limited, special circumstances. The example he cited would apply to the rarest of instances – use by a male prostitute having sex with another man – and, even then, would be considered appropriate only as a first step to changing behavior. Even this narrow exception of condom use, however, is an acknowledgment by the pope that the journey to holiness is usually a long-term process. Overnight changes of heart, instant conversions and immediate saintliness are virtually nonexistent in the reality of daily life. Alternatively, incremental steps, which may or may not withstand moral scrutiny on their own, can reflect long-term moral growth in the context of a greater path to holiness.

For the first time, the church put the protection of another person’s life above that of the possibility of procreation.

Many Catholics believe Pope Benedict’s statement opens the possibility that the Church itself is undergoing a parallel growth process: while not condoning sex outside of marriage, this is the first time a pope has publicly recognized degrees of sexual sinfulness outside of marriage. There are issuing concerning types of sexual behavior — in particular, whether they threaten the life of another — which can be weighed when considering their degree of sinfulness relative to one another.

It remains to be seen just how far the church will continue to “go there.” In less than a day, the Vatican spokesman clarified that the Pope’s analysis applied to all couples where one partner is HIV-infected and the other is not — a startling move in that, for the first time, the church put the protection of another person’s life above that of the possibility of procreation. Whether this line of reasoning leads to further shades of gray, such as elevating the morality of sex between long-time loving partners over random hook-ups, will likely take more than one or two more papacies — if not another St. Francis.

The Author : John Mattras
John Mattras is a social justice advocate who creates small business projects for charitable organizations in the U.S., Latin America and the Middle East. He also leads service projects to help promote awareness of using capitalism to empower the poor and marginalized.
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  • Matt

    Here you go, Mark. And the link to the full story follows the excerpt, below:

    From The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s spokesman, said that for Benedict, the use of condoms by people infected with H.I.V. could be “the first step of responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk to the life of the person with whom there are relations.”

    “Whether it’s a man or woman or a transsexual,” he added.


  • Mark

    could you please provide support for this: “In less than a day, the Vatican spokesman clarified that the Pope‚Äôs analysis applied to all couples where one partner is HIV-infected and the other is not ‚Äî a startling move in that, for the first time, the church put the protection of another person‚Äôs life above that of the possibility of procreation.” Because in the text of Light of the World it is clear that this example applies only to homosexual acts because it does not deal with procreation. Therefore, contraception is not on the table for discussion.

  • Matt

    It’s interesting how many responses there are indicating the pope wasn’t speaking “ex cathedra.” There are only four, limited, narrow “ex cathedra” teachings. If that’s the standard we use to decide when a pope’s teachings are to be accorded consideration by Catholics, then it is fair to ignore almost everything any pope has ever said.

  • R.C.

    Clarification #1:

    The pope did not say anything ex cathedra in this instance. He was speaking in a personal interview, and made it clear (using verbs like such-and-such “may” be true, not “must” be true) that he was speculating rather than pronouncing a dogma to be held de fide.

  • Matt

    Tom…Much like Colossians 3:22, Ephesians 6:5, 1 Peter 2:18, among others, Romans 1:24 has to be read in a greater context and not in its most literal sense (Although take a look at the New American Bible and, in particular, its footnotes. All three references to homosexuality in the new testament are translated from the Greek term “Catamite.” A “Catamite” is grown male who hires an underaged boy prostitute for sex. On multiple levels, that in no way resembles a commited, loving relationship between consenting adult men or women.) It is also worth noting that most scriptural references to sexuality, in general, metaphorically refer to temple worship practices that were viewed as a form of idolatry. Homosexuality as we know it and as regarded by the medical and psychiatric fields — a normal variation of human sexuality — was a foreign concept to early scripture writers. Conversely, the concept of a human being owning human slaves was considered morally acceptable to them. God, goodness and evil are eternal and unchanging. Our human understanding of them unfolds over time as God reveals more to us through science, medicine, personal experience and many other disciplines.

  • Tom

    Matt…If what constitutes sin can change or evolve with the thinking of the current culture on such an issue as the homosexual “act” then nothing is sacred. Sacred Scripture as in Romans 1:24-32 and Sacred Tradition as in CCC #2357, amongst others, would have to be discarded in this case.

  • Eric Snowball

    Thank you for your optimistic and happy account of how our faith grows, is true to its own humanity and preserves the centrality of moral behaviour. Our pontiff has taken a difficult and, on my reading, a courageous step towards a more frank understanding of what is our human journey towards the divine.

  • Matt

    It’s true the church will never accept any sin. But what constitutes sin will continue to evolve along with our understanding of human sexuality. Gay people falling in love with each other and building lives together will one day be seen as no more revolutionary than the reality that the earth is round, not flat. The church moves slowly. But it moves.

  • Mark Herwaldt

    The church is not on it’s way to accept any sin. The pope was teaching us about the path towards holiness. He wasn’t changing church teaching. It is the same teaching that the church has always given. Each person takes steps towards truth in their lives if they are trying to live for God. The pope was giving some specific examples. He wasn’changing any teaching.

  • Matt

    Rachel..Acceptance of homosexuality by the church (as definied by “priests on the ground” and the reality of where Catholics in Europe, South America and the US are on the issue) is well on its way irrespective of the issues of condoms. As for your comment about the dangers of over-population being “false” because birth rates are declining, you seem to ignore the reality that the world is already stretched for resources with the population that it has. What’s more,a decline in birth rate is not the same as a decline in population. The world is growing at a slower rate than the past, but it is still growing. Over-population is real — and dangerous.

  • Father Richard

    Thank you for your thoughtful article. Your insights are especially helpful in this emotion-charged discussion. I agree that the process of spiritual growth/turning from sin is often incremental – it is important to encourage the first step.
    In addition to the similarities in the two situations however, an important difference should also be noted: namely, that in the case of St. Francis, the friars asked the offenders to cease an immoral act, namely the taking of innocent life; in the case of the male prostitutes, the Holy Father tolerates the positing of a morally neutral act during the commission of sexual sins (condom use is immoral as a contraceptive measure or as an encouragement to engage in immoral behavior in the belief that it protects against disease, not in the fact that it provides some protection against disease transmission.)

  • Rachel

    Mistakes will be made as we strive to understand this and mistakes will be made as people take this small statement to mean much, much more than than the Pope intended. For example, William would like this to be a step towards endorsing homosexuality which is not likely for so many, many reasons and a false belief the world is over-populated which the falling birth rates worldwide have shown it isn’t. Let’s just all take this one step at a time and not rush to thinking we’re either heading to Hell OR marching to Sodom.

  • Fr. Chris

    While not ex cathedra, ALL who claim to be Catholic are bound to be obedient to the See of Rome no matter what, at whatever cost. He who occupies the See of Rome is held responsible for every christian soul and, ultimately, every human soul on this planet. However, those who claim to be Catholic are bound by obedience to respect the teachings of the Pope and the Church of Rome whether ex cathedra or otherwise. Obedience is seperate and apart from the infallability of the Pope. That is a completely different matter. Obedience to the Pope is no different than obedience to Christ as the Holy Father is the sole representative of Christ in this life.

  • Bill

    I wish people wouldn’t take statements that are not ex cathedra so seriously. The bylines and conclusions the media are making about this are ridiculous!

  • William Grogan

    There are so many, many roads to God, or enlightenment, or however one wants to think of salvation. I have never considered the hard line the church takes in matters of behavior, including sexuality, to be fair and just. There are many gray areas to be discussed and considered before making sweeping rules and generalizations as to what is right vs what is wrong. Where two people love each other and are committed to each exclusively has never felt wrong or “sinful” to me regardless of the genders of participants, whether two men, two women or man and woman. Where does one draw the line? Is a couple that uses condoms to avoid pregnancy because the mother is physically unable to give birth considered sinful? What about if they cannot financially support another child. Still sinful? It seems to me they are behaving responsibly. The human population is over running the planet. Is it sinful to use condoms to avoid adding to the population? The Pope has now recently accepted the limited use of condoms in certain circumstances to prevent spread of HIV. I think this is a good first step although a very tiny one. I’ve long since come to terms with the thought that the Church will never come round to my way of thinking, at least in my lifetime. Progress is slow and, within the Catholic Church, painfully so.

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