Monday, November 22, 2010

Benedict on Condoms: Confronting the Real (and Deep) Apologetic Challenges of the Catholic Church Today

I haven't yet commented on the recent discussion of a remark of Pope Benedict in a forthcoming book that permitting the use of condoms by a male prostitute might represent a first step on the path to moralization of the prostitute's activity.  I haven't commented for a variety of reasons.

First and foremost, I find it laughable that so many influential Catholics of the center are applauding this timid (and back-handed) baby step towards honest moral reflection about the use of condoms (and about homosexuality) as a huge step forward.  I certainly recognize that this papal statement is important, as the smallest, most grudging recognition possible that all moral questions about condom use (and homosexuality) aren't solved by a single black and white rubric, particularly a black and white rubric of universal condemnation.

But, still: this is the best the Catholic church has to offer its adherents and the world right now?  And we're expected to laud this grudging tiny step and to tell the Holy Father how grateful we are for his condescension in deigning to make observations that have long been perfectly obvious to anyone with a head on her shoulders and a working conscience?  I don't get it.

I have also refrained from saying anything up to now because the blowback against the papal statement, and the attempt to contain it--minuscule as this breakthrough is--is already fierce.  And I'm, frankly, worn to a frazzle by all this to-ing and fro-ing in Catholic intellectual circles about issues like condom use and homosexuality.  There's a much bigger world beyond the boundaries of the Catholic church, and in that world, moral insights abound and challenging moral conversations about issues like this have moved leaps and bounds beyond the timid parochial conversations inside the Catholic church.  Even paying attention to some of the intra-ecclesial conversations reinforces the parochialism--and siphons energy for really meaningful moral analysis and discussion.  And leaves some of us who happen to be gay just as bloodied and beaten up as we already were when we entered the fray.

And so I'm inclined, in any commentary I might make about the papal statement, to focus not so much on what Benedict will say in his forthcoming book, but on the Catholic reaction to it.  If I were still teaching theology, I might, for instance, ask students to read, say, John Allen's commentary on Benedict's statement at National Catholic Reporter and Andrew Sullivan's at his Daily Dish blog, and then do a comparison-contrast analysis of these two very different takes on the same papal statement. 

What do these two statements say about the core values and perspectives of these two Catholic commentators, I'd ask students?  And in what precise ways does the fact that John Allen is heterosexual and married influence his understanding of issues like this, and how does the fact that Andrew Sullivan is openly gay affect his reading of the papal statements?  And what do they say about the state of moral analysis within the institution to which these two commentators belong?

And here's what else I'm noticing about the papal statement: already, it has opened a door through which many Catholics are always eager to step--a door to hostile rhetoric about their brothers and sisters who happen to be gay.  Whether this is what Benedict intended by choosing the eccentric (but obviously carefully selected) case of a male prostitute presumably servicing male clients to make the point that condom use can be "moralized," from certain clearly defensible moral standpoints, I don't know.

If this case was chosen with care--and I am assuming it was--it was chosen because 1) it strictly confines the possibility that condom use can be more moral than the refusal to use a condom to male homosexual sexual activity, and in the context of prostitution, at that, and 2) it has the ability to backfire and actually fuel the always latent homophobia everywhere in the Catholic church, and so the case takes away with one hand what it gives with the other.  It provides a well-selected prophylactic shield against any analysis that might move a step further and apply the principles implied in this case to heterosexual sex and, in particular, to cases in which a husband is HIV+ and using a condom protects his wife (and any child they might conceive) from HIV infection.

As I say, the homophobic blowback has already begun.  At one discussion site, I've seen a thread quickly develop which reminds us that Benedict and the Catholic hierarchy are tone-deaf and even inimical to the concerns of women, and which suggests that the case of a male prostitute was chosen because gay hierarchical officials are, well, drawn like flies to honey to such cases.  This discussion uses the obvious and deplorable misogyny of the hierarchy to attack gay Catholics, especially gay male ones.  It fails to recognize that heterosexual women enjoy, at least, a degree of protection from discrimination in Catholic institutions that these institutions refuse to afford their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.  And it fails to see that the homophobia that supports such discrimination against those who are gay is rooted in the same misogyny that demeans women, and so women and gays and lesbians have every reason in the world to make common cause in the battle against that misogyny and the homophobia that rides on its skirt-tails.

At some of the blog sites of the powerful intellectual elite that forms the center of American Catholicism,  another trope of homophobic slams is equally predictable.  They run like this: dirty homosexuals engage in dirty homosexual sex which already merits eternal damnation.  So what's the big news in permitting dirty homosexuals engaging in dirty homosexual sex to use dirty condoms?  The principle sketched by the Holy Father doesn't apply to us upright heterosexual Catholics for whom sexual activity doesn't equate, after all, to prostitution.  As it does for all dirty homosexuals.  Who all engage in dirty homosexual sexual activities meriting eternal damnation.

What's even more interesting about the fact that faithful Catholics are logging in to make such remarks at these centrist sites is the fact that they are not challenged or censored by the site owners--not one bit.  Not in the way in which some of these same sites have, in recent weeks, censored the comments of bloggers (including me) who call these homophobic brothers and sisters to accountability.  And yet those running these sites claim to have a pastoral concern for their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters . . .!

In the real world in which many of us who don't inhabit the rarefied elysian intellectual circles of the Catholic hierarchy and its centrist apologists live, what Benedict says about condoms and male prostitutes does not represent such a stunning breakthrough.  Our problem is to understand the excitement of the reaction itself.  Our problem is to understand why anyone still imagines it possible even to think about human sexuality in this way, and to call such thinking not only moral, but the standard by which all other moral reflection should be judged.

How is it possible, we wonder, that some of our Catholic brothers and sisters still believe that this apodictic, non-experiential, top-down way of thinking about human sexuality imposed by a presumably celibate all-male clerical elite is not merely moral, but the moral ideal?  Or that the best way to approach discussions of the morality of human sexual behavior is by cold reasoning, in which there is a principle to cover every case and an answer for every dilemma--a rational answer?

Many of us who do not live in the oh-so-smug and oh-so-certain Catholic parochial ghetto have long since concluded, with Cardinal Newman, that "no ideas are more wild than those which are relentlessly reasoned out by the hard heart and the sober judgement."  We have concluded that, if the "there" to which we want to go as the people of God is a humane place, and humane for everyone, relentless reason divorced from supple and tender hearts is not the best way to get us there.  

And so we've decided long since that encouraging husbands who are HIV+ to use condoms to protect their wives and unborn children from infection is a no-brainer--it's the humane, moral thing to do, and only a head reasoning relentlessly in conjunction with a lifeless heart could propose otherwise.  Or could defend the pope when he states that condom use accelerates the problem of HIV infection in Africa.

We've decided, since we long since broke with the model of relentless reason premised on hardness of heart, that the entire way that the Catholic magisterium asks us to think today about issues of sexual morality--to be precise, the way in which it supposes that reason which prescinds from the heart is a reliable guide to moral thinking about sexuality--is nonsensical.  It's inhumane.  It leads to inhumane conclusions.

And any institution that keeps promoting this way of thinking about the morality of human sexual life is inhumane.  It undercuts its claim to humanity by its inhumane way of talking about human beings, in the realm of sexuality.

And its defenders, no matter how many nice essays or blog postings they write about the struggles of their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and the need for pastoral outreach to them, undercut their claims to have any authentic pastoral concern for those who are gay and lesbian.  By their defense of this hard-hearted "rational" nonsense.  By their defense of an anti-human way or thinking and talking about sexuality (and, therefore, about human beings, who are sexual beings) that completely undermines their pretense to be interested in pastoral outreach to those who are gay and lesbian.

Finally, judged against the backdrop of where the church really is right now, as opposed to the elysian ideal implied by the relentless reason of its sexual ethics, this furor over a statement about condoms and male prostitutes makes little sense at all.  The problem many people now confront, when they think about the Catholic church and their connection to it, is a problem of finding God anywhere at all in the world.

Not a problem of thinking through the morality of condom use by male prostitutes.

It is a problem of coming to believe that God can exist and can care about us, when the institutionalized barbarism and cruelty of the Catholic church vis-a-vis many groups of people--but notably towards those who are gay and lesbian today--is not merely defended but applauded by centrist Catholics who claim to be intently concerned about those on the margins.

The problem in which the church finds itself right now is much more serious than any spin doctoring and image management--like the election of Timothy Dolan as head of the U.S. bishops, or the spinning of a papal statement about male prostitutes and condoms--is going to resolve.  The problem the Catholic church would be confronting now, if it cared at all about its real mission and real credibility, is this: how can an institution that has earned a well-deserved reputation for hard-heartedness possibly continue to claim the affiliation of people who are seeking something else from religious affiliation: a welcoming, affirming home; brothers and sisters whose hearts are supple and who journey together towards spiritual ideals that aren't exclusively owned by any of us, etc.?

Many of us look at Catholic institutions right now, and see only cruelty.  And those acting as papal cheerleaders and cheerleaders for Bishop Dolan aren't helping the matter at all, even--or especially--when they simultaneously claim that they care about their gay brothers and sisters.

We know that where folks' treasures are, their hearts are likely to be.  And wreathing the injustice and cruelty in smiles is not going to disguise the rotten values beneath the smiles.

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