Today is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. In light of current events, it seems especially important to remember what we celebrate today.
According to Pope Benedict:
the fourth century. On it we give thanks to God for the mission he
entrusted to the Apostle Peter and his Successors.
“Cathedra” literally means the established seat of the Bishop, placed
in the mother church of a diocese which for this reason is known as a
“cathedral”; it is the symbol of the Bishop’s authority and in
particular, of his “magisterium”, that is, the evangelical teaching
which, as a successor of the Apostles, he is called to safeguard and to
transmit to the Christian Community. . . .
The See of Rome, after St Peter’s travels, thus came to be recognized
as the See of the Successor of Peter, and its Bishop’s “cathedra”
represented the mission entrusted to him by Christ to tend his entire
flock. . . .
therefore, as we are doing today, means attributing a strong spiritual
significance to it and recognizing it as a privileged sign of the love
of God, the eternal Good Shepherd, who wanted to gather his whole Church
and lead her on the path of salvation [General Audience, Feb. 22, 2006].
I went on a retreat over the weekend, at a hotel, with the baby.
And we are quite refreshed and renewed and resolved. The husband and kids did quite well without me, thank you very much.
But, it would appear that the Catholic side of the internet needs more supervision than it was getting, because things seem to have gone a little nuts in my absence.
Before I left, I saw that Pope Francis had said some words on an airplane. (Again.)
Here’s what he said, in response to a question about the use of abortion and contraception in cases where couples are concerned about the Zika virus, which can cause serious birth defects:
Abortion is not the lesser of two evils. It is a crime. It is to
throw someone out in order to save another. That’s what the Mafia does.
It is a crime, an absolute evil. On the ‘lesser evil,’ avoiding
pregnancy, we are speaking in terms of the conflict between the fifth
and sixth commandment. Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in
Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape.
Don’t confuse the evil of avoiding pregnancy by itself, with
abortion. Abortion is not a theological problem, it is a human problem,
it is a medical problem. You kill one person to save another, in the
best case scenario. Or to live comfortably, no? It’s against the
Hippocratic oaths doctors must take. It is an evil in and of itself, but
it is not a religious evil in the beginning, no, it’s a human evil.
Then obviously, as with every human evil, each killing is condemned.
On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In
certain cases, as in this one, or in the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul
VI, it was clear. I would also urge doctors to do their utmost to find
vaccines against these two mosquitoes that carry this disease. This
needs to be worked on.
While I was away, those words began to cause many people to get giddy with joy/hurt and confused/full of despair. And a lot of those people, who were having those feelings, took to the internet to express them.
The mainstream media headlines were predictable in their overstatement.
Click-bait-y Catholic sites (that I won’t link to) were also predictable in their preference for clicks over responsible journalism.
As I tried to sort through everything, a few posts in particular stood out to me as helpful and reasoned.
When the story was still new, Jenny at Mama Needs Coffee, made the very valid point that if you just look at the actual words of Pope Francis, there’s not NECESSARILY anything to be upset about. I appreciated her take:
I’ve reread his remarks at least a dozen times now, and I can’t find
the spot where he encourages Catholic spouses to oppose one another in
their sexual embrace by means of contraception. I can, however, see
where he alludes to NFP in the line “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.”
It sounds really familiar, actually. Because it’s a central message in one of Catholicism’s most essential texts on sexuality: Humanae Vitae.
So to sum things up: no, Pope Francis, in an in flight interview on a 747,
did not just change the Catholic Church’s teachings on birth control
(not least of which due to the simple fact that he can’t. He literally
doesn’t have the power to change it.)
That’s what I thought too, and I figured there would be a clarification and all would be well. The whole nuns in the Congo being given permission by Pope Paul VI to take contraceptives, it seemed . . . off. But, I did read this explanation by Jimmy Akin on the different moral issues involved, and it was at least comprehensible.
But then, Fr. Federico Lomdardi, who was with Pope Francis on the flight, made the following statement to Vatican Radio:
The contraceptive or condom, in particular cases of emergency or
gravity, could be the object of discernment in a serious case of
conscience. This is what the Pope said…the possibility of taking
recourse to contraception or condoms in cases of emergency or special
situations. He is not saying that this possibility is accepted without
discernment, indeed, he said clearly that it can be considered in cases
of special urgency.
D’oh. Not exactly what we were hoping for. (I can’t find an original source for this in English. It’s quoted all over, but not sourced. So it’s possible that this is not an accurate quote.)
But. I’d like to point out, that this is NOT necessarily the “official clarification” we seek. When there was confusion and controversy surrounding condoms after the publication of a book of interviews with Pope Benedict, Fr. Lombardi issued a prepared statement, including the following:
Thus the pope is not reforming or changing the teaching of the church,
but reaffirming it by placing it in the context of the value and the
dignity of human sexuality as an expression of love and responsibility.
Fr. Lombardi’s statement in the current case with Pope Francis, didn’t feel like an official clarification, it seemed like he was simply confirming that Pope Francis did in fact say those words on the plane, as he was also on the plane, rather than saying that those words were without error, or that they were consistent with Catholic teaching.
Because it seems clear enough that there are inconsistencies.
Janet Smith explains the Catholic moral teaching at stake:
To suggest that some “emergency” or “special situation” would permit a
person in conscience to use contraception does not align with Catholic
theology. For spouses to use contraception is always wrong. How can any
emergency or special situation justify what is always wrong? It is an
use of conscience to use it to discern that it is moral to do what is
intrinsically wrong in special situations. One job of the conscience is
precisely to enable a person to honor moral norms in special situations.
emergencies or special situations we are not permitted, for instance,
directly to kill innocent human beings even if great good could come
death. Martyrdom is precisely a result of the refusal to do something
morally wrong in an “emergency” or “special situation.”
And THEN Fr. Z, hallelujah, demonstrated VERY convincingly that Pope Paul VI NEVER gave permission to nuns or anyone else to use the pill:
[It] reads like a soap opera, the one hand. It reads like a vicious
campaign of lies and disinformation designed to confuse the faithful and
undermine the Church, on the other….
This whopper doesn’t pass the smell test. Paul VI told nuns they could use contraceptives… riiiiight.
the more you go back in time, the more “Paul VI” becomes, more vaguely,
“Rome”. Dig deep enough and you will find that “Rome” turns out to be
just an article published, you guessed it, in Rome, precisely by the
magazine Studi Cattolici, n° 27, in the year of our Salvation 1961.
Title: “Una donna domanda: come negarsi alla violenza? Morale
esemplificata. Un dibattito” (A woman asks, how to subtract oneself from
violence? Exemplified morals. A debate).
Yes, I can hear you yelling at the monitor. Paul VI ascended to the Throne of Peter only in 1963.
now I want somebody to tell me, with a straight face, that St. John
XXIII allowed contraception. Above all, I want them to show me where and
when he did it.
Fr. Z also points out that Pope St. JPII similarly did not okay contraception for nuns at risk of rape, even though the same thing was alleged in the 1980s about him and nuns in Kosovo.
Read the rest here, if you can. Fr. Z’s blog appears to have crashed from all the traffic, but keep trying. It’s good.
So, thank goodness it isn’t true. It isn’t true that nuns in the Congo were given the birth control pill by Pope Paul VI and it isn’t true that Catholic moral teaching would permit the use of the birth control by married couples concerned about birth defects. One problem solved. But we are still left with the problem of Pope Francis having said it. Which is a bummer, but not a particularly BINDING bummer. Because Pope Francis was NOT speaking ex cathedra, or “from the chair.” THE chair. Today’s chair.
I like how Jason Bermender summed it up:
He also says that the use of contraceptives is evil, albeit a lesser
one. This is not new. It is also a principle of moral theology that one
may not commit a lesser evil in order to avoid a greater evil, no matter
how much worse it is, especially if a good action is a possibility.
Thus, Pope Francis did not give permission to use contraceptives to
avoid being pregnant with a child who might have a debilitating
condition. Even if he did contradict Church teaching, he is human and
makes mistakes like the rest of us. No big deal. Other popes have done
I understand the having of feelings related to the things that Pope Francis said. As a person who spends some of her time defending the truth and beauty and consistency of Catholic teaching on human sexuality, and a lot of her time looking after the eight little fruits of that teaching, I understand.
I also understand wanting to take to the internet to question or vent or rage or despair. But I don’t think that’s a good call.
I have to agree with Micaela of California to Korea:
There are two types of people who challenge popes: humble and holy people like St Catherine of Siena and
rather more rebellious people like Martin Luther. If you’re concerned
with the way Pope Francis is handling things, by all means, send him a
letter. Contact your parish priest, your spiritual director, or even
your bishop for guidance on how to handle it. But nailing your own
personal 95 theses to a blog post is a recipe for rebellion and
division, not renewal and unity. Be like St Catherine, not like Martin.
Today is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. The man who sits in that chair deserves our respect and our patience. I want to be like St. Catherine.
Pope Francis is our Holy Father. If my dad were to say something incorrect to someone on a plane, even if it turned out to be a really big deal, and then people wrote about it in the newspaper . . . even THEN, I wouldn’t take to Facebook to vent about it. I wouldn’t want to air family disputes publicly. I might talk to my brothers and sisters, sure. But definitely, I’d call my dad up or send him an email. I’d explain how I was feeling and the facts as I understood them, and I’d let him know what I hoped he would do to fix the situation.
So that’s what I did.
I wrote Pope Francis a letter. And since he doesn’t have an email address, I wrote it on PAPER and I put it in an envelope and I addressed it and I put postage on it and tomorrow, I’m going to put it in a mailbox.
Here are some tips if you’d like to do the same.
His address is:
His Holiness Pope Francis
00120 Vatican City
The proper salutation for a Catholic writing to the pope is: Your Holiness, or: Most Holy Father,
The proper closing for a Catholic writing to the pope is: I have the honor to profess myself with the most profound respect, your Holiness’ most obedient and humble servant, or: I am, Your Holiness, most respectfully yours in Christ,
The postage from the US to Vatican City is $1.20 or three forever stamps.
Perhaps if a few of us write to him, respectfully, lovingly, like sheep addressing their shepherd if sheep could write letters, then perhaps we will get a more official clarification. And wouldn’t that be especially cool in this Year of Mercy, from the guy in the Chair of St. Peter?
For more ideas on living the Year of Mercy, see
For another quick and easy activity for today’s Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, see