At St. Matthew's, faithful have mixed views as they ponder pope's comments on condom use

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 2010; 7:52 PM

The gray-haired chief usher for the Latin Mass was headed with his metal cane for the steps of Washington's Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle when he paused to consider the latest church teaching on condom use.

"As a Catholic," said Lucius Robertson, 91, he opposed the use of condoms. "As a John Doe," he said he approved.

"It's strictly personal," he added, "a singular decision."

Mixed feelings were common Sunday among Catholics attending Mass at St. Matthew's at they tried to understand statements last week by Pope Benedict XVI that appeared to ease the church's long-standing ban on using condoms.

In a new book, the pope indicated that condoms could be used to prevent the spread of life-threatening diseases, like HIV. In the past, official church teaching has forbidden condom use under all circumstances, as part of its opposition to birth control.

Experts have been debating whether the pope's comments, which the Vatican has sought to clarify, opened the door to discussion of the broader ban, even as many American Catholics have already indicated they disagree with it.

A 2003 Washington Post poll found that 88 percent of Catholics believed that using a "birth control pill or condoms" was morally acceptable.

Much of that sentiment was in evidence at St. Matthew's Sunday.

"I don't think there should be a ban on condoms," said Kay Gautsch, 68, who was visiting from Racine, Wis. "The pope says use them for AIDS prevention, but I think birth control is very important.

"On the alternative, you have abortion, you have children [whose] parents can't afford their kids," she said. "I think that's responsible parenthood, to use condoms and limit the size of your family."

"I would hope the ban would change," she said. "People are using their common sense and . . . responsible health concerns when they use condoms. It's a good thing."

Marie Claire Odell, 50, of Silver Spring, who was just leaving church, said the apparent easing of the ban was due.

"The Catholic church is not that swift to recognize" the need for change, she said. "They just recognized Galileo. Quite honestly, it takes them a while, but hopefully they're getting there.

"I think it's about time," she said. "Let's be serious. Let's jump into the 21st century. I think you'll find a lot of people saying the same thing."

Asked about the condom ban, Danny Coleman, 71, owner of the Dubliner Irish pub and the Phoenix Park Hotel, said with a laugh: "I already have six kids, so I don't really give it a lot of thought."

He said he believed condom use was "generally accepted, whether or not it's the position of the church."

He added, though, that the church had to have a position on condom use, and that banning it between married couples was probably correct.

"The church has to have some guidelines," he said, "and then you interpret [them] a little bit differently . . . God speaks to different people different ways."

Tom Pickrel, 61, of Colesville, who is retired from the State Department, said he had never favored the condom ban. "It derives from the church's position on birth control, and here we're talking about disease control, and so there's a bit of a conundrum," he said.

Asked if the ban might someday be lifted, he said, "The church is an institution whose basic reference of time is eternity. So things can take a long while to change."

James Walsh, 61, a lawyer and administrative judge from Rosslyn, said he supported "any change in policy that's going to save lives, and it should happen sooner rather than later."

As for the overall ban, "I never thought it was a good idea," he said. "I also favor women priests, [and] no compulsory celibacy, so I don't know how representative I am."

Maximilian Meran, 27, a German student at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said it was the pope's job to provide guidance to the faithful. "The pope is not the Supreme Court," he said.

"He gives a direction," added Laurence de l'Escaille, 24, a Belgian student at the school, as the couple emerged from the 10 a.m. Mass. "He doesn't say he expects everybody to follow it by the letter . . . He's just saying this is in theory what should happen . . . He's making a narrative."

"You need a narrative," she said, "if only to disagree with it."

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