Pope Benedict’s clarification of the moral theology relating to condom use has produced one of those moments in media life when journalists ceremoniously remove their thinking caps and implement a hopelessly formulaic analysis of the Church’s inner politics and theological dialogue.
CNN and others have so far breathlessly noted Pope Benedict’s nuanced statement, but only with about as much subtlety as inept opinion writers reported on his equally nuanced quotation during the “Regensburg Moment.” Others, like the Telegraph, have been positively devious, proclaiming that the Church no longer opposes contraceptive acts. And, tiresome to say, each of these articles wearily attempts to relate the condom comment to past sex abuse by priests.
The expected lines of “argument” have been drawn up: The antiquarian, stuck-in-the-mud Church is finally catching up with modern ethics, with the spirit of the age, and with progress. After all, we are at a point in human history where the vast majority of things formerly prohibited are now considered good.
There are those who see the Church primarily as a political body, which, owing only to its self-interest, tends not to change its “policies” on issues very often. Other commentators have a somewhat more accurate understanding of the Church as a messenger with an unchanging message, but still are at pains to understand moral absolutes. Then there are those who understand that the Church proclaims certain moral absolutes, and must therefore be consistent.
Said one of these, “If the pope can change his stance on condoms, why can’t he also modify the Vatican’s harsh intolerant opposition to women’s rights, gay equality, fertility treatment and embryonic stem cell research?”
If we tweak this to refer to “intrinsically contraceptive acts” as opposed to condoms in particular, this fellow would have a point. If the Church could change its position on, say, the intrinsic dignity of human life in abortion, why not change its beliefs about the divinity of Christ or life after death?
He would have a point, that is, if the pope had indeed changed his stance–except that he hasn’t, incrementally or otherwise. But at least he’s right to point out that the Church has to be internally consistent or cease to call itself the Church.
There are others, though, who are almost risibly indifferent to such consistency. My tragic favorite is this example:
Sex worker Constance Makoni, from the town of Mbare in Zimbabwe, said she was pleased to hear the Pope’s message. She said she uses condoms to protect herself against HIV, even though it is against her beliefs.
Makoni, the story goes, is a typical victim of the Church’s scandalously consistent wisdom on contraception, who would somehow countenance ethical scruples regarding contraceptive use, while missing the point of how prostitution might brush up against the Church’s teachings as well. This odd paradox has been addressed before, as here in an analysis by First Things’ friend Michael Liccione:
I’m actually less sickened by the hue and cry over the Pope’s remarks about the perennial AIDS-condom issue. Every few years or so, the media broadcast the charge that the Vatican is guilty of mass murder for opposing the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV infection in Africa. Now even if condom use were generally effective for that purpose, it takes only a moment’s reflection to expose the recurring charge as ludicrous. Surely anybody can figure out that the number of AIDS-infected people who take Catholic teaching seriously enough to avoid using condoms, but not seriously enough to avoid sex with uninfected partners, has got to be pretty close to nil.
In any case, all the Pope said was that passing out condoms en masse is more likely to be part of the problem than of the solution. Even the research from Harvard agrees—much to its author’s chagrin, I’m told. What is the freakin’ problem here? It’s not that hard to understand. People who believe in what was called, during the 60s and 70s, “the sexual revolution” can’t imagine that abstinence is a more humane and effective prophylactic than latex. That’s because they can’t imagine truly voluntary abstinence at all. Thus, if somebody capable of sexual activity and attractive enough to have a partner is abstinent, that must be because some malign force—such as mental illness, a controlling paterfamilias, or a religious hierarchy—is coercing them to avoid sex. That view is a prejudice which explains a lot of other attitudes as well.
The latest hue and cry about the Pope, and the outrage against the Harvard report, only confirms the liveliness of the prejudice. But I’m more amused than sickened.