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.
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.