Wednesday, November 24, 2010

More on Benedict and Condoms: Shift Occurs, I Remain Underwhelmed

I’m still trying to get my mind around the flurry of discussion Pope Benedict’s condom remarks have elicited in Catholic circles and in the culture at large.  Thinking this issue through isn’t easy for me now, since I’m not technically “at my desk” these days, and am not finding much time to be online and read (hence my pre-fab postings of the last two days, relying largely on material from things I’ve written before or excerpts from Peter J. Gomes’s The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus).

And so I’m hesitant to write much about this issue now.  I have the sense, too, that I’ve been pushing myself lately, and am out of sorts as a result, up against the boundaries of my personality—and so what I write may come across as even more curmudgeonly than usual.  For reasons I can’t fathom (blood sugar ups and downs? lots of pounds dropped quickly?), I’m having one sleepless night after another.  I’ve always been an ardent sleeper who needs good sleep, so these leave me grumpy, feeling unable to think as clearly as I’d like.

Still, if there’s any time at all when discussion of the condom issue (and, above all, Benedict’s apparent change of heart about condom use to prevent transmission of deadly disease) is appropriate, now’s the time.  Since everybody is talking about this.  For much of yesterday afternoon into the evening, I noticed, when I had a moment to scan Huffington Post, that the most recent Vatican clarification of what Benedict thinks about condom use and transmission of infections was the head story at that news site.  I'm not linking to this and many other news articles in the past two days about this topic, since I assume most readers of this blog have already been following the media discussion.

And so it would, of course, be dismissive to claim that Benedict’s concession on condoms does not represent an advance in his previous thinking—his previous publicly avowed thinking—about these matters.  Take what the Vatican now tells us—that condom use to prevent infection of others is morally better than lack of condom use when one stands to infect someone else—and compare it with what he told journalists as he set out on his African trip in March 2009 (and see here, here, and here), and the shift is obvious.  

The pope is now recognizing what the vast majority of ethical theorists, as well as large numbers of lay Catholics and Catholics working to deal with the AIDS crisis in many places including Africa, have long seen: that use of this technology to prevent the transmission of serious illness is morally preferable to absolute prohibition of condoms as birth control.  Absolute prohibition in all cases. No questions permitted.

This is a step towards moral responsibility, if a tiny step.  And Catholics who are celebrating this step are right to do so—and theocon Catholics (to borrow Andrew Sullivan’s term) who have long resisted this step may well be right to do so, if they expect everyone to keep pretending that Rome cannot change its mind about anything, and that any change at all portends the tumbling down of the entire house of cards.

I cannot shake my own sense, articulated two days ago, however, that this tiny step, measured against the consensus that people of good will and many Catholics had long ago reached on this issue of condom use, is far too little and far too late. As Rome dithered, people have been dying, after all.   I cannot shake my own sense that there is really precious little to celebrate today in the way the Catholic church responds, at an official level, to situations in which there is an imperative need to give better and more humane moral leadership to the faithful (and moral witness to the world at large).

I cannot escape my sense that there’s tremendous irony in hearing centrist Catholics who little more than a year ago bent over backwards to parse and defend Benedict’s statements about how condom use is making the AIDS crisis in Africa worse, now praise the pope fulsomely for his humanity in conceding that using condoms to prevent lethal infections may save lives, and that that goal may be morally preferable to its opposite.  What kind of ecclesiological universe must these fellow Catholics live in, when every word that falls from the papal lips is to be venerated, celebrated—and defended, even when the defense tortures reason and calls into question our credibility as reasonable, and more to the point, humane and caring persons?

I place the grateful outpouring of praise for Benedict’s small concession about condoms against the backdrop of the church we were on our way to becoming after Vatican II—the church he and his predecessor John Paul II stopped dead in its tracks—and I wonder if those now celebrating this tiny step in the right direction, particularly well-educated centrist Catholics in dialogue with contemporary culture, have any concept of how strange we have come to seem, as a church.  A church that only a few decades ago encouraged lay people to read, learn, study, enter fruitful dialogues with contemporary culture, now finds its moral voice in the world so caged that we sit around waiting for the man at the top to make a tiny statement suggesting a more humane approach to a serious medical-moral issue, and we go wild with joy.

What kind of people are we now?  What kind of people behave this way?  What kind of community of faith that expects to have moral credibility engages in such uncritical, entirely defensive adulation of its chief spokesperson, while systematically bridling and then removing from its midst almost any and all voices of moral insight and conscience that do not run in approved channels?

Not an admirable community, I would propose.  And not a very humane one.  We have succeeded in becoming, in only a few generations, a people so inward-looking, so parochial, so focused on navel-gazing and conformity to what our leaders say, that we now offer the world—as if this is some precious gift brimming with moral insight—discussions about whether priests should or should not wear clerical collars in their everyday activities.  We offer these rehashed post-Vatican II discussions as gems of moral insight for the world at the start of the new millennium.  As though the dull laity need to eavesdrop on such in-house clerical discussions to get their poor confused heads straight, given the laity's well-known propensity for heading down every doltish path possible.

While people are dying in droves in some parts of the world from AIDS, and our own church has worked systematically to prevent the distribution of condoms in areas in which HIV infection is pandemic.  While our own church uses millions of dollars annually to attack a vulnerable minority community and remove rights from that community.  While people walk away in droves from our church as its pastoral leaders continue to obfuscate when it comes to the clerical sexual abuse situation and how they have mishandled it.

And while our church claims through it all that everything it does, it does to make love more accessible in the world.  That it makes all its decisions in view of its calling to be a sacramental sign of God’s healing, all-embracing love in the world.

I must say I don’t get it.  As I don’t get it when one of the leading Catholic journalists in the U.S., one of the luminaries of the American Catholic center, Peter Steinfels, praises Benedict’s understanding of sexuality because the pope appears to recognize that, while “a drastic separation of sexuality from procreation” is morally inadmissible, use of contraception “under some circumstances and to some extent” may still be morally licit.  This is precisely where the American Catholic center has long found itself, vis-à-vis use of contraceptives, and this position—morally valid use of contraception by married couples, but no room at all, ever or in any circumstance, for homosexual sex—has gone hand in hand with shameful injustice towards Catholics who happen to be gay or lesbian.  The position of the American Catholic center goes hand in hand with injustice towards gay and lesbian Catholics, and does not stop to question that injustice or call for honest discussion about it—even as it defends for heterosexual Catholics the rejection of the procreative norm on which the Catholic church judges all expressions of gay sexuality to be immoral.

Keep the sexual ethic used to diminish the humanity of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters: it’s all about procreation in the end, our centrist brothers and sisters appear to propose.  But please let us who are heterosexual and married apply the wisdom we’ve learned in our graced journey of faith to the question of contraception.  Let us make exceptions to the rule when we need such exceptions.

Even though, in doing so, in choosing not to procreate at this time and in these circumstances, we’re giving living witness to the lack of wisdom of building a sexual ethic around that very same notion of procreation we praise you, the magisterium, for keeping front and center in sexual ethics!  The procreative norm used to bar each and every gay human being from any morally permissible expressions of intimacy and intimate relationships . . . . And even though we continue to support our brothers and sisters of the right who bash gays and seek to bar gays from marrying with the argument that marriage is all about procreation—while our church marries heterosexual couples incapable of procreation.  And while some 90% of us in developed nations practice contraception in our own marriages.

There is a serious, obvious issue of justice in this conversation at the American Catholic center, which many of the strongest voices of the center appear absolutely determined to overlook, to an extent that is simply shocking.  As they inevitably drag into discussions about justice for their brothers and sisters who are gay questions about where women and children fit in—as if according mere decency and basic justice to gay brothers and sisters will undermine all procreation in heterosexual relationships (it clearly won’t), and as if gay men, in particular, are anti-women and unconcerned about children (we aren't).

Even at our very best, we who are Catholic no longer seem to have much of substance—much that is humane or rationally compelling—to offer a culture in which many people of good will have long since surpassed us in moral insight re: issues about which we claim to have the last word.  And we’re not likely to develop compelling moral insight as we wait around for the next stunning revelation from the top, and systematically and ruthlessly weed from our midst voices of conscience that do not easily mesh with the views of the top, while promoting the malicious voices of the extreme right, as we remain conspicuously silent about the conspicuous theological and moral shortcomings of those brothers and sisters.

And no amount of image management and spin control—whether the election of a  top bishop who puts a smiling face on our moral stolidity and the cruelty we want to pass off as love, or the p-r driven papal choice to soften the previously intransigent stand on condoms—is not going to retrieve moral persuasiveness for us as a community.  Retrieving our moral influence would require work I'm not sure we're prepared to undertake: listening far more seriously to many significant voices we're barred from our center; critically engaging those at the top in a courageous stance we're not prepared to adopt; and, above all, breaking with the clericalist (and heterosexist) model in our church that has so crippled our effectiveness in responding to the culture at large at this point in history.  And our effectiveness in becoming a really believable sacramental sign of what we proclaim to the world.

The graphic is a visual depiction of the parable of the blind men and the elephant: describing the whole elephant takes many voices articulating many perspectives, since each sees what is in front of him.

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