The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the Pope’s recent comments on condom use have ignited a “firestorm” and sparked a “frenzy” as the Vatican rushed to clarify his comments.
I have to confess that I found the article somewhat baffling, especially in consideration of the highly specific, convoluted hypothetical in which the Pope’s “endorsement” was made:
“There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.”
This story reminded me of my lack of familiarity with Catholicism. In all my years of Baptist church, Christian Elementary School, High School Youth Group, Sunday School and Christian College, I cannot remember ever having a serious debate about the morality of condom use. It’s surprising that such a hot-button issue for Catholics could be such a non-issue for Evangelicals. Unless I’ve missed something, as I often do.
In fact, my one first-hand experience with the Catholic view of birth control was so foreign to me at the time, that I was scarcely able to process it.
In preparation for marriage, my wife and I were compelled by our priest to attend a weekend retreat called “Engaged Encounter” which was hosted by the Catholic Church at a retreat facility in Central Massachusetts. The weekend was filled with intense and productive reflection and dialogue on a number of topics. At one point, one of the host couples began to share experiences from their own marriage. The shift from a series of anecdotes to a pitch for was so gradual that I recognized it only later, when they pointed out that there were books and CDs in the back that we could take for free to learn more about the method.
This pitch happened a few more times over the course of the weekend, and I found it problematic for two reasons. The first was that natural birth control accomplished the same goal as other contraceptives. The fundamental idea was to not have a baby. So the way in which the ‘natural’ method was somehow morally superior to the pill or condoms was lost on me. It seemed to take as much, if not more, modern science to achieve than other methods. And it simply seemed like a clever way to get around the rules, to follow the letter of the law but not the spirit.
The second issue was that the room was filled with a number of interfaith couples, and our leader spent considerably less time addressing this issue than the issue of natural birth control. And by “less” I mean “none at all.” The idea of people of different faiths sharing their lives seems considerably more problematic to me than the precise way in which they prevent themselves from having a baby. Even if you do believe that people of different faiths can simultaneously take their beliefs seriously and have a successful marriage, it would seem to—at least—be a worthwhile discussion to have before entering into a lifelong contract.
Of course these musings probably serve to emphasize my embarrassing lack of understanding of the Catholic faith.
Even so, I found the controversy surrounding the above article strange. The pope’s reluctant allowance for the use of condoms in such a narrow scenario seems not at all an encouragement of sex, but an acknowledgment of the fact that people of differing belief systems have sex, and often in irresponsible and dangerous ways.
We cannot expect people to behave the way we, as Christians, do. It seems to be an even less realistic expectation as we know that Christians are just as capable of using poor judgment when it comes to sex as the rest of the world. If we acknowledge the theological point that, no matter how hard we try and despite the fact that we are commanded to try as desperately as possible, the majority of people will not become Christians and will therefore not behave as Christians, should we not then go about the work of preserving life by any means possible while we acknowledge the grip that sin has on our world? Can the preaching of the Gospel and the protection of unbelievers’ lives not take place simultaneously? It now seems this is a debate the Catholic Church might be ready to have.
If we believe that all life is worth protecting, should we not, with hopeful hearts, encourage safer sex among those who do not hold the same moral beliefs as we do even while we share our beliefs in a loving way? Again, it seems to be less of an endorsement of dangerous sexual activity than an acknowledgment of its grim reality and an effort to combat its potentially deadly consequences.
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