Wednesday, November 24, 2010

In Control

There has been a lot of buzz lately about Pope Benedict XVI and his stance on condoms. The pope has a new book out, called The Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times. The book explains the pope's thinking on some controversial issues, but has not necessarily clarified the Roman Catholic Church's position to the fullest extent. In a tiny section of the book, the pope mentions condom use by prostitutes to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS. 


Even sight unseen, many hailed this as a change to Vatican policy, a sign that the RCC was relaxing its stance on birth control. However, as Vatican spokesmen have clarified in the past few days, this has nothing to do with birth control- it's about disease prevention. Furthermore, this does not express a change in position, but a hope that a person willing to protect another person from a deadly disease might be moving along a moral path that would end with appropriate sexual behavior (i.e. abstinence until heterosexual marriage). The scope of the papal comments do not even include the use of condoms within the context of couples in which one of them is infected. 


Cardinal Raymond Burke explains the nuances of the pope's words here


I don’t see any change in the Church’s teaching. What [the pope is] commenting on — in fact, he makes the statement very clearly that the Church does not regard the use of condoms as a real or a moral solution — but what he’s talking about in the point he makes about the male prostitute is about a certain conversion process taking place in an individual’s life. He’s simply making the comment that if a person who is given to prostitution at least considers using a condom to prevent giving the disease to another person — even though the effectiveness of this is very questionable — this could be a sign of someone who is having a certain moral awakening. But in no way does it mean that prostitution is morally acceptable, nor does it mean that the use of condoms is morally acceptable. The point the Pope is making is about a certain growth in freedom, an overcoming of an enslavement to a sexual activity that is morally repugnant [unacceptable] so that this concern to use a condom in order not to infect a sexual partner could at least be a sign of some moral awakening in the individual, which one hopes would lead the individual to understand that his activity is a trivialization of human sexuality and needs to be changed.


So, let's be clear. The use of condoms is not a real or moral solution to sexual immorality. It does not undo the wrong of prostitution (the prostituting or the purchasing of services). This is true. 


If you notice, however, Burke does mention that the efficacy of condoms to prevent disease is questionable. Well, it's not 100%, but it's better then nothing. In fact, it's a lot better than nothing. And the use of condoms to prevent the spread of disease is a step in moral progress. 


I'm still undecided, leaning toward no, however, on whether this statement represents moral progress on the part of the Vatican. It's hard to believe that person could engage in sex for money, but refuse to use a condom because of the say so of the Holy See. Also, the condom use that desperately needs to be advocated (with regard to disease prevention) is in married couples that include an infected partner. The spread of HIV and AIDS in the global South is exponential in this regard. Presumably, the RCC feels she has already taken a firm stand against prostitution, but I've heard much more commentary on the evils of birth control in general than on the sex trade around the world. (Though, I will admit, I don't look for information on the Church's activities with regard to the sex trade, so I could be missing some amazing, significant and abundant work.) 


I've read several memoirs by nuns and priests (and ex-nuns and defrocked priests) who married shortly after Vatican 2, believing the advent of married clergy (if not women clergy) would be right on the heels of the sweeping reforms. It didn't happen. And many chose their marriages over their vocations. To be fair, many didn't have the option of returning to their vocation. 


Almost every Catholic I know has used birth control. Even those with larger families realized the blessing in reaching one's limit and that God continues to bring fruitfulness into one's life in many and various ways. I think those that hope the pope comments in The Light of the World might be a sign that of changes to the RCC stand on birth control are hoping in vain, just as those did who thought Vatican 2 was sign of further openness to come. 


In an interview on All Things Considered, Father Joseph Fessio gave this example to explain what Benedict meant by moral progress: 


[The pope is] not giving a scale of evil or good here. But let me give you a pretty simple example. Let's suppose we've got a bunch of muggers who like to use steel pipes when they mug people. But some muggers say, gosh, you know, we don't need to hurt them that badly to rob them. Let's put foam pads on our pipes. Then we'll just stun them for a while, rob them and go away. So if the pope then said, well, yes, I think that using padded pipes is actually a little step in a moral direction there, that doesn't mean he's justifying using padded pipes to mug people. He's just saying, well, they did something terrible, but while they were doing that, they had a little flicker of conscience there that led them in the right direction. That may grow further, so they stop mugging people completely.


The way I see it, with their continued hardline on condom use in marriage, the Vatican might now be wrapping their pipe in foam pads for some people. But they're still hitting people far and wide and they don't show signs of stopping any time soon. 



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