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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 natural family planning 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.

About The Author

Jon Busch

0 Responses to Incredibly Strange Condom Remark Causes Incredible Controversy

  1. Zogood says:

    John,

    First time reader, first time commenter. It sounds to me as though you were married by a priest in a Catholic Church on account of your wife’s faith. Is that correct?

    If not, ignore what follows, and I apologize for misreading you, though you could have been clearer.

    If so, then you verbally assented to and promised the following:

    “(Name) and (name), have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage?”

    “Will you honor each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives?”

    “Will you accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?”

    The third vow should have been fully explained to you on your Engaged Encounter, by your priest, and by your wife (if she was practicing her faith at the time). That third vow promises that every procreative act you and your wife engage in will be open to children and that you will raise them in the Catholic Church.

    If the part about “Christ’s Church” being The Catholic Church eluded you, the creed would have cleared it up in saying “We believe in…the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.”

    That vow should mean that you are raising your kids Catholic, but it seems that you’ve avoided any familiarity with the church at all, which just seems irresponsible. I hope that doesn’t come across as ad hominem, but I think in this situation it is important to point out, especially because you might be ignorant of what you promised.

    With regards to the actual morality of the birth control: just Google Thomas Aquinas on the subject. He is pretty clear on it. Every act should bear its natural consequences. Eating without thought to nutrition or health should make you fat (liposuction is a violation of this natural law).

    Every sexual act should have as its consequence the possibility of generating children. Does this mean that barren people should never have sex? No. Is it immoral to have the flu and vomit up your lunch? No. Just like it isn’t immoral to have sex during a time in the woman’s cycle during which conception is physically impossible.

    But what about abstaining from sex during times when conception IS likely? Is abstaining from sex immoral? Certainly not. I’m doing it right now. So are all celibates.

    So, what about the spirit of the thing? Now, just as someone could rape their wife, lust after their wife, sexually assault their wife, so too can more innocent acts be immoral within the context of marriage. If a married couple is practicing NFP because they are poor and literally couldn’t afford to provide for a child, then it is permissible. If a couple is practicing NFP because they hate the idea of children, but want to follow “the letter of the law”, then the act is still immoral.

    There is a natural law and a supernatural law in place here, both of which must be adhered to for the act to be moral. While the atheist ignores the supernatural law, many protestants ignore the natural law.

    I hope that helps.

    • Jon Busch says:

      Thanks for your comments, Zogood. Sorry for the confusion I caused. My wife and I are both members of an Episcopal church which we both attended before we were engaged or married. Our priest’s recommendation of the engaged encounter hosted by the Catholic Church was simply due to the lack of a comparable program hosted by the Episcopal Church or any other protestant denomination. Still, your comments have been very helpful in clarifying the Catholic view of birth control, and I found them very interesting and enlightening. Thanks for reading.

    • Mark P says:

      Good comment, generally speaking.

      But I have to say that the creeds only help to clarify that the Church is the Roman Catholic Church if you’re Roman Catholic.

      • Zogood says:

        Thanks Mark. Don’t know if you remember me, but I’m a Hillsdale alum as well.

      • Zogood says:

        Sorry, posted too quickly. Just wanted to add a thanks to Jon as well for the clarification. At the time I read it and responded in the last five minutes before leaving work, I only saw “priest” and “Engaged Encounter” and assumed you were Catholic.

        The Engaged Encounter I’ve found/heard to be generally very good, of course limited by the experience and competence of the couples and priest(s) who are running the weekend. Any system that convinces 1/20 couples that they should reconsider things based on basic questions about family and faith seems to me to be helping to lower the divorce rate.

        With regard to “big C” v. “little c”: both the Nicene and the Apostles creeds use the word (though the clause about the Church and the preceding clause about the Holy Spirit are technically post-Nicene), every church uses the word c/Catholic except the Lutheran as far as I know, and to quibble over that editing trifle is to dredge up the whole Reformation question… neither the time or the place, I suppose.

        Nice to hear from you though – I’ll have to add your blog to my Google Reader. And good to see that we lurk in the same places.

        • Jon Busch says:

          Yes, I don’t mean to knock the Engaged Encounter. We actually found it to be really productive. But it is INTENSE. You’re pretty much alternate between journal assignments and one-on-one discussion for 8 hours per day and they keep you busy from dusk til dawn. But I do recommend it. We and the two other couples from our church who have done it all really appreciated the experience.

  2. Mark P says:

    Jon, contraceptives used to be a more controversial subject in American evangelical circles and remains so among some Protestants. Ole Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protestant_views_on_birth_control. I’m pretty sure the mass acceptance among many evangelicals is fairly recent (well, like half-century recent).

    Also, I’ve had the reasons why NFP ≠ artificial contraceptives explained to me a number of times in various ways, and while all arguments have a certain appeal and logic, I can never seem to keep them clear the next day…

  3. Denver says:

    Posts like this brgtihen up my day. Thanks for taking the time.

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