Friday, November 26, 2010

Faith, morals, and the necessary application of reason

In the recently released transcript of a lengthy interview with journalist Peter Seewald, published in book form under the English title Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times, a book, as Sandro Magister points out, that is "so 'risky' [it] has no precedent for a successor of Peter," the Holy Father is asked questions on a broad variety of subjects. I am looking forward to reading the entire book, just as I read The Ratzinger Report, Salt of the Earth, and God and the World, the latter interview was conducted shortly before Ratzinger became pope and published shortly after his selection as the Successor of St. Peter. In addition to Light of the World, Seewald published the last two of the three previous books. He returned to practicing the faith after his first interview with then-Cardinal Ratzinger, published as Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium

Given the current state of most of the West some frank questions about sexuality were inevitable. It is all too predictable that in the current media environment the answer to one question about the use of condoms to reduce the risk of contracting or spreading HIV in an interview that runs 256 pages would predominate coverage and spark a firestorm. Even more than John Paul II, who spoke about sex more than any of his predecessors, maybe even all of them put together, at least going back a couple hundred years, and who gave us the very salient teaching we now know as the Theology of the Body, Pope Benedict has spoken on several occasions directly to the crisis perpetuated by pseudo-scientific and increasingly ideological takes on human sexuality. In this interview he says about condom use:
"Concentrating only on the condom means trivializing sexuality, and this trivialization represents precisely the dangerous reason why so many people no longer see sexuality as an expression of their love, but only as a sort of drug, which one administers on one's own. This is why the struggle against the trivialization of sexuality is also part of the great effort so that sexuality may be valued positively, and may exercise its positive effect on the human being in his totality. There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps 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."
The quote above is enough to clarify what the Holy Father was trying to communicate, until, that is, it is ripped out of context by journalists who do not know the first thing about Catholic morality and who can't be bothered to speak to anyone who does. Needless to say such an understanding is crucial to comprehending what the Holy Father is saying.

The crux of the matter is that if someone is engaging in gravely sinful behavior (i.e., engaging in sexual relations with anyone other than his/her spouse), employing a condom does not increase the gravity of the sin. So, especially in an instance when someone is employing a prostitute, using a condom to reduce the risk of contracting or spreading HIV does not present a serious moral issue. Now, if that same person who engaged the prostitute is married, whether he can employ a condom while having sex with his spouse is a different moral question. Some may object by making a category mistake and employing an argument to the effect that the Church is indifferent to the spouse of the person who is HIV positive. The Church is not indifferent in the least to plight of anyone! So, the Church's answer to a married couple, one of whom is HIV-positive, is that they abstain from sexual intercourse.

So, if a person is determined to participate in high risk sexual behavior with multiple partners, using a condom does not increase the gravity of the sin (or its mortality, as it were). Keep in mind that while condoms may reduce the risk of transmitting HIV, they do not eliminate it altogether. Epidemiological studies have shown that abstinence and fidelity campaigns in Africa have been more effective at stemming the spread of HIV than the distribution of condoms, which has the effect of officially approving sexual irresponsibility.

It seems to me that throughout his pontificate, as well as prior to it, Pope Benedict has insisted that for us to act as though people are incapable of controlling their sexual impulses is to greatly diminish their humanity. In a time when so-called sexual liberation, which is not really a term we use anymore, is becoming the prevalent ideology in the West (this creates as much hostility between the West and the rest of the world as virtually anything), we have become accustomed to reducing the human person either to his/her libido and/or his/her sexual use. This certainly constitutes one of the greatest threats to our common humanity and, consequently, to our civilization. It is also precisely what the Holy Father means when he says that we must work "toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But [encouraging the use of condoms] is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality."

For an accurate and techincally detailed analysis of the Holy Father's comments, I can point you in no better direction that the response of Dr. Janet Smith. It is important not to react when certain members of the news media run amok and to recognize that the Holy Father's comment, even prior to any "clarification by the Vatican," does not represent a change in Church teaching, or even a "softening," to use a less charitable and wholly inadequate term.

The Holy Father was asked by Seewald in Light of the World if he expected difficulties when he became pope, to which Benedict responded:
"I had counted on it. But above all one must be very careful in evaluating a pope, whether he is significant or not, while he is still alive. Only afterward can one recognize what place, in history as a whole, a certain thing or person has. But that the atmosphere would not always be joyful was evident in consideration of the current global configuration, with all of the forces of destruction that are out there, with all of the contradictions that exist in it, with all the dangers and errors. If I had continued to receive nothing but agreement, I would have had to have asked myself if I were truly proclaiming all of the Gospel."

All holy men and women, pray for us


  1. Reading papal interview books like "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" and "God and the World" really opened me up to the Catholic Church and my conversion. I was surprised with all of the hoopla over this one paragraph. One newspaper in the UK focused on the section about the pope stepping down, making it sound as if he were possibly contemplating doing so over guilt from the sex abuse scandal. How arrogant can one be? Well, that answered my question.

  2. I read The Ratzinger Report just a few years after becoming Catholic. Like you, it was a great way to learn a lot and learn in context. Like everyone else, I can remember the great anticipation prior to the release of JPII's books. I look forward to Benedict's second volume on the life of the Lord, due this Spring I believe.

    It's good to hear from you, David.


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