In the Catholic Register (January 23, 1988) there appears an article by Joanne Sisto under the heading, “Covenant House takes to the streets.” It tells a heroic story about the work of the Covenant house staff, who take to “the streets” six days a week in a 27-foot mobile home and contact the homeless, friendless, unloved young people who frequent the “jungle” that is the seamy side of Toronto the Good. In the words of Mary McConville, the Covenant House Director, “ The long term goal is to get them off the streets for good.” She adds, “It takes a special kind of person to do the job.” It sure does.

I sometimes wish that I were “that special kind of person.” But I’m not. I lack the Christ-like compassion, the total self-giving and the almost superhuman patience to listen and listen and listen to the same kind of story every day. Add to this the, humanly speaking, hopelessness of the situation and you have nothing left in your arsenal but the dictum of Mother Teresa, “God does not ask us to succeed. He does ask us to be faithful.”

The Founder

Father Bruce Ritter, the Founder of Covenant House, is a great man and a great priest. I haven’t met him but I have read about him. He has written a book, ‘Covenant House – Lifeline to the street,’ telling the story of his inspiration to start this wonderful project. From being a college teacher, he literally “ took to the streets” in search of the lost sheep and Covenant House was born in New York. With almost no funds and very little support, he launch this titanic project, founded on Faith, That was in 1968, just 20 years ago. Since then Covenant Houses have sprung up around the world. Through them, not just thousands but tens of thousands of kids have been helped to put their lives together, While there are many failures- in the human sense- there are also a lot of success stories.

Here is the conclusion of a letter from one youth who was “ helped.” His name is Steve and he was 19 when he wrote “ If not for the time and care all of you gave me, I would probably be wasting my life away back in jail or living on the streets. I am now living a very happy life in Ottawa. I have a good job and have met a beautiful girl whom I am getting married. There will always be a spot in my heart for you.” One letter like that can make up for a hundred apparent failures. The actual story of a “ Lost Sheep” brought back to the “Fold” can never be rendered captive in the bonds of mere human words. It perhaps belongs in the realm of the heart rather than in the head.

Another side of the coin

It must be obvious from the heading of this column that I have other things to say about Covenant House, which would not come under the heading of “ unadulterated praise,” and I have. But, first of all, I want to make it clear that I mean sincerely every word I have said above. I admire Father Ritter, I admire Covenant House and the staff who work there. But, a recent development connected with the Street Apostolate has left me not only shocked, but shattered.

According to an article in the Sunday Sun (December 27,1987), the Covenant House staff who run the mobile home hand out condoms tot hose who request them! Here is a quote from the article by Stuart McCarthy, “ Uh, could I have some rubbers?” Asks one of the hustlers. Sheila (Scott) hands him a strip of five. “Remember, these are for health precautions.” And later down the page – again comes the request for condoms and Scott hands them out, repeating their use for the “disease prevention.”

I was away after Christmas and didn’t see this article immediately. When it was brought to my attention, I said, “ It isn’t true. It can’t be.” An Interim reporter interviewed Mary McConville who confirmed that this is a fact. Condoms are handed out by staff of the mobile home to those who ask for them. If the quote from the Sunday Sun is correct – and it has not been challenged- there does not seem to be much counseling. “ These are for health reasons” doesn’t sound like a counseling session to me!

Not for contraceptive reasons

Mary McConville told our reporter that, “Condoms are not given out for contraceptive reasons, which the Church doesn’t approve of.” It is news to me and, I believe to every other Catholic, that the Church approves of a Catholic organization handing out condoms for any reason. Even supposing that it was morally right to hand out condoms for non-contraceptive reasons, how does Sheila Scott know what use will be made of them? Here again is the quote: “Sheila Scott hands him a strip of five. ‘Remember there are for health precautions’.” Sheila must be very trusting.


According to Mary McConville, Covenant House had the approval of the Archdiocese, in the person of Bishop Wall, the Chancellor. A number of moral theologians have also approved. I am not a “ “moral theologian” in the “ professional” sense of the expression. I did study the subject-without distinction- for four years. I am sure I would not pass an examination in “modern” moral theology.

But there are some principles, which do not-or should not-change. One of these is that you cannot use immoral means to achieve a good end. The Church has held firmly to that principle through the centuries in spite of being accused by the word of being “ lacking in compassion, common sense and even justice.” When compassion is misplaced it can lead to all kinds of aberrations – contraception, abortion, infanticide, euthanasia. I believe that on the issue of condoms, Covenant House is co-operating in evil for a “good cause.”

Some vital distinctions

I do not wish to be pedantic, but there is, in moral theology, a very important distinction to made between tolerating evil and co-operating with evil. The word  “ toleration” comes from the Latin verb “tolerare” to “endure” or to “bear with.” One may sometimes tolerate an evil when nothing can be done about it without possibly causing a worse evil. We may have to tolerate intense pain in ourselves, or another. But we are not justified in committing suicide or murder to banish the evil of pain. The Church often has to tolerate an unjust government because to oust it would mean civil war, which would bring about a worse state of affairs. But that is entirely different from “ co-operating” with evil. The word “ co-operate” comes from the Latin word “cooperari” which means,  “to work with.”  To co-operate in evil means to positively take part in the evil. To hand a gun or a knife to a murderer, is tantamount to committing murder. At the very least, it is encouraging the evil deed. And such an action is always morally wrong.

Knife edge distinctions

I am aware the moral theologians can walk on the edge of a sharp knife and make distinctions, which are beyond the scope of the ordinary faithful. But the “ ordinary faithful” possess an instinct, which might be termed the “sensus fidelium.” Whatever the classical translation, I would call it “ a sense of what is right.” It has worked infallibly for over nearly two thousand years on the Church. Through it the laity have “ saved” the Church on more than one historical occasion. The Arian heresy of the fourth century springs to mind. Perhaps it is my little share of the “ sensus fidelium” that is at work now. I am sure that the theologians could wrap me around their fingers on a TV program on moral theology and win the popular vote with the audience. But I know that handing out condoms to young people is wrong and nothing less than an official statement to the contrary from the Pope will change my conviction.

Is this arrogance?

I am sure that what I have written could be interpreted as arrogance in the extreme. Who am I, to pit my puny intelligency against that of the Chancery Office and are the experts in moral theology? But wait a minute. Just at the moment there is a battle raging in the U.S. among the Catholic Bishops. The point at issue is not the handing out of condoms by a Catholic organization. It is something much less serious. It is the inclusion of instruction on the use of the condom as a prophylactic against AIDS in the education system.

The USCC (the Bishops’ U.S Conference) issued a document entitled “ The Many faces of Aids, A gospel Response” in 1987. It was signed by the executive but had not even been read by a number of others. Some of the “others” included such prestigious names as Cardinal O’Connor of New York, Cardinal Law of Boston, and Archbishop Stafford of Denver. Both Cardinals and Archbishop Stafford have issued statements rejecting the pertinent contents of the document. And remember, it is not a question of handing out condoms, only giving some instruction on their use!

Eating words

Father Bela Somfai, S.J., is one of the theologians who would allow the distribution of condoms to street kids. When it was pointed out to him that Cardinal O’Connor would not agree, he is reported to have replied: “Cardinal O’Connor will have to eat his words.”

The words in this column are entirely mine. Nobody asked me to write them and nobody helped me. I, alone, am responsible for every jot and tittle. If the Pope issues an official statement approving the handing out of condoms by a Catholic organization, I shall, figuratively speaking, eat my words. But, until that document appears, they will remain placidly placed on my plate!