Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Condom Debacle

This condom debacle is really stupid on several fronts. Primarily, it was imprudent for L'Osservatore Romano to choose to print this particular excerpt from Peter Seewald's new book; could they find nothing more uplifting or relevant to run as an excerpt other than this obscure comment about condoms on male prostitutes? One would think that L'O is actually trying to ruin the pope's reputation, which I am fairly certain may in fact be the case. This is another reason why L'O should be shut down. It has just had too many gaffes in the recent past to retain any credibility, the last of which was lost, in my opinion, with its embarassingly lame attempts at being mainstream by referring to Homer Simpson as a "true Catholic" (see here). L'Osservatore Romano is like an old uncle who, while once possessing the aura of venerable authority, has gradually slipped into dementia with age and says increasingly absurd things as the years go by. At first, the relatives try to make excuses for his embarrassing gaffes, but soon it is obvious to everyone that the uncle has lost his mind. Like this uncle, L'O has demonstrated that it is no longer competent to manage its own affairs and should be taken over or shut down entirely.

Second, I question the editors of the book in their decision to include this passage. The book Light of the World is being published in America by Ignatius, but I don't know who approved the original German manuscript. Given the PR blunders with the Regensburg address, the Bishop Williamson debacle, the misrepresentation of the Holy Father's statements on AIDS in Africa (which even Seewald, author of Light of the World agrees were debacles - see here), I am astonished that somebody working on the pope's book didn't stop and say, "You know what, this comment might lend itself to misinterpretation. Should we possibly consider leaving it out?" Perhaps this was talked about behind the scenes, perhaps not; all I know is that I am astonished that some astute Catholic editor did not see this passage and strike it out.

Which brings me to my third point, the passage itself. My friend and co-blogger Athanasius has done an excellent piece on his blog about why the pope's statements are in themselves a little questionable - you can view Athanasius' post here - and it should be pointed out that this is alright to say, because the pope was speaking not in an encyclical, speech or papal address but as a private individual in an interview with a reporter, where he has virtually no authority above and beyond what he possesses as a theologian. At any rate, I am not going to dwell on the theology behind the pope's statements but on the lack of clarity they evidenced. Let's look at the quote in context:

BXVI: 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. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.

Seewald: Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?

BXVI: She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step.

Okay, pause. Look at Benedict's response to Seewald's question. I can grant that the media is twisting the pope's words way out of context, but I must also say that if they are, the pope has only himself to blame for giving such an unclear answer to Seewald's question. In the first place, if Seewald, who is a friend of the pope and a Catholic, immediately jumps to the conclusion that his comments imply that "the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms", why would the pope not think that the world at large would jump to the same conclusion? To Seewald's follow-up question, why did the pope not say plainly, "No. Absolutely not. That is not in any way what I am saying." That would have been a lot better and would not lend itself to as much distortion.This was one critique that some Protestant commentators made of the debacle, and rightly, I think: since prostitution is an immoral act and a sinful lifestyle, wouldn't it have been more beneficial for the pope to try to lead people completely out of that lifestyle rather than dwell on potential mitigating factors within that lifestyle? This may be an example of the modern tendency in theology to focus excessively on exceptions rather on norms (see here).

Many have suggested that the problem is just that nobody has read the pope's words "in context." I don't think the difficulty goes away by reading the statement "in context." Even in context, it is still a vague answer, and perhaps a question that never should have come up. It's as if one were to ask me whether it were more cruel to drown a puppy or drown a kitten. Even if it were possible to come up with an objective answer, it can be argued that the question should perhaps not have even been discussed because the very fact of discussing it makes you look bad and lends itself to misinterpretation. Janet Smith, in her apologia for the pope, says that it is like asking whether, when robbing a bank, it is better to use an empty gun rather than one that is loaded. I am not a moral theologian, nor even a theologian for that matter, but this sort of argumentation does tend to come off as hair-splitting. Granted, I may be too dumb to grasp the argument,  which I readily admit, but it seems to me that prostitution is always intrinsically evil, and that whatever sub-actions one may do within or as part of that act do not lessen its gravity. Robbing a bank with an empty gun does not lessen the gravity of robbing the bank. I grant it may evidence a piece of emerging conscience on the part of the perpetrator, but since this is unable to render an intrinsically evil act good, why even make these distinctions, especially in print, especially when you are the pope and responsible for a billion souls, especially when you should know that the world at large is going to totally miss the point?

Finally, I cite the public's response to this gaffe as another reason why this whole issue is stupid, especially those, whether in the media or the masses at large, who are taking this comment as some kind of papal "teaching" or reversal of the Church's position. Last month I did a post on what I called the Church's "ex voce" teaching, which I defined as occurring when persons, either within or without the Church, mistake off the cuff comments of the pope, statements in letters, speeches or other very low-level pronouncements as the official teaching of the Church. This is a prime example of the ex voce phenomenon unfolding before our eyes:  the pope's comments with an interviewer in the context of a book are so far low down on the scale of magisterial authority that they really shouldn't even be considered papal teaching; rather, they represent the personal opinions of Joseph Ratzinger the theologian. I am not detracting from the pope's authority, but making a point that his comments in a book do not constitute magisterial teaching. And yet, despite this, we have probably millions of people taking Benedict's comments as "the Church's teaching" and granting these comments the same authority due to an encyclical or infallible pronouncement; this is even more disturbing since the vast majority are misinterpreting the comments. But the point is that people are taking private comments of the pope to be "the Church's teaching" and acting accordingly.

The sad thing is that I am really looking forward to reading this book; from what I have read about it, it promises to be a very enlightening elucidation of Benedict's thought on some very important issues, and many who have read it have stated that the public will be taken aback by the pope's candor on some of the issues he addresses. Hopefully the pope will learn his lesson about saying things like this and will do something about the clowns over at L'Osservatore Romano who have proven time and again that they are untrustworthy.

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Daftpunkett said...

thank you thank you thank you for saying everything I have been thinking!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much, my thoughts exactly...or almost exactly.
May God bless you.


Anonymous said...

Yes, thank you for saying what I have been thinking. It is needless to say that the Church does not need to delve into facet of deviant sexual behavior. There is also the modesty issue here. When I was in high school and college even, I did not know the mechanics of gay sex. I'm sure even now, I don't know everything there is to know on highly perverse sexual behaviors, nor do I want to. There is no need for this. The Pope is embarrassing us.

Baron Korf said...

I guess I just don't see what all the fuss is about. When I read the quote the first time it made perfect sense to me. I don't think he was off base at all.

As far as the media are concerned, they are a bunch of dunderheads that couldn't write an accurate account of "See Spot run". However, their mistake gave fodder for a fruitful discussion in my Confirmation class.

Anonymous said...

I would suggest reading this article and the follow up comments. I don't think this is being fair to the Holy Father.

Boniface said...

However you cut it, the bottom line is the pope should just not have been talking about this, especially since he ought to have known that it would be liable to misinterpretation.

Anonymous said...

Because people in the press are going to distort his words and/or misunderstand him on a controversial topic like this, he should remain silent?

I don't agree.

The challenge is for Catholics and other people of good will not to allow the ignorant to twist his words to their (and others') destruction. Just as it is on a myriad other Catholic topics, it's up to us - wherever we are - to correct false characterization and illogic when we encounter them.

What the Pope said was not wrong, or even very controversial, imo.

Elizabeth said...

The Pope seems to be saying that the act of protecting another human being from a disease you have or may have, reveals a realization that you are responsible for your actions towards another human being. He does clarify that this is not the real answer, only an ideological step in the direction of respect for human dignity. Saying Benedict VI approves of condoms in this context is like saying he's O.K. with male prostitution. It is a pretty shaky subject to discuss in an interview with the media though.. (comment is just my humble opinion)

Boniface said...

Yes, teh media certainly got it wrong to say the pope was "approving" of condoms...I don't think the pope should have been pursuing this line of thinking at all, however.

Anonymous said...

Why is it unfair to say that the Pope spoke without clarity? We cannot be blameless in today's decline of moral law and critical thinking if we give the Holy Father a pass. The Holy Father is intelligent, no? He knows right from wrong, does he not? He ought to know he is proposing a way which deviates from what has clearly been taught in the past. By introducing a moral ascent within the act of sodomy is to give a positive sign of hope to those who need to "cut of their arm" rather than commit the unnatural act in the first place. If he does not truly understand the weight of his statements, then it is indeed a gaffe. It is an absolute truth that there is no gradual step toward morality when two men engage in sodomy, with or without HIV.

Philip J.