Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Making the world safe for stupidity

Sometimes, it seems like the only issues religious debates hang on now have to do with sex and reproduction. It’s like listening to Johnny One-Note playing the kazoo: it gets old very fast. Like much else, the same ground gets covered over and over, like a flock of crime-scene investigators looking for a toenail in a farm field.

Take the issue of contraceptives, for example. At least since 1968, the year Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, various people (both Catholic and non-Catholic) have been grumping about the Church’s decision to maintain its traditional opposition to artificial birth control, either damning it as an example of the Church’s refusal to join the twentieth (now twenty-first) century or bemoaning it as well-intentioned but ineffectual.


For instance, Roland S. Martin grumbled in a recent CNN column that Pope Benedict XVI “clearly shows he doesn’t get it”:

[The Pope] is absolutely correct that condoms are not the solution to stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS. He is also 100 percent correct that the only surefire way of stopping HIV/AIDS, when it comes to sex, is to practice abstinence. That is clearly within the teachings of the Bible and the Catholic Church, and he will find no disagreement from me.
Now the reality.
People are having sex. Catholics are having sex. Heck, some Catholic priests have abandoned their oath and have had sex.
As a layman and the husband of a pastor, I know the difference between utopia and reality, and it is the responsibility of the faith community to deal with the real world.

Of course, it all depends on what you feel isn’t being gotten. In the real world, actions have consequences. (That includes sex, whether you like it or not.) In the real world, poor judgment has consequences which you avoid only if you’re lucky. And in the real world, anything less than a firm “no” is a qualified “yes”.

Put yourself in the shoes of a parent, and try uttering these words to yourself:

“Your mother and I really want you to drive safely and courteously. But if you can’t, at least put on a seat belt.”

“Son, I don’t want you to become a gang member. But if you’re going to become a gang member anyway, then be sure to wear this flak jacket and Kevlar helmet whenever you get into a firefight.”

“If you’re going to shoot up heroin, at least use a clean needle.”

Now, as far as seat belts go, I strongly support them simply because drivers who use good judgment tend to get hit by drivers who use poor judgment. But wearing a seat belt doesn’t make a reckless driver safe … it just means he’s less likely to die from injuries sustained from the inevitable collision he’ll cause.

Let’s be blunt: If you meet a stranger at a bar and take him/her home for a one-night stand, it doesn’t matter if s/he’s HIV-positive—you’re exercising poor judgment. If you sleep with your best friend’s spouse, or your spouse’s best friend, it doesn’t matter if you or she gets pregnant—you’re exercising poor judgment. If you haven’t finished high school yet when you decide to give in to that special urge—well, who expects good judgment of a teenager?

And that’s the problem in a nutshell: we no longer demand that people exercise good judgment. This is unrealistic, because there’s nothing the universe punishes so severely as a stupid decision. (If you don’t believe me, check out the Darwin Awards and see for yourself.)

Martin continues: “What we need today are our church leaders preaching, teaching and imploring their members not to go to bed with anyone and everyone. We also need church leaders who are willing to stand up and tell folks that if they do choose to sin—that’s what the church and other faith leaders consider sex outside of marriage—then you had better take the necessary precautions to protect yourself.”

Okay, what’s the message here … that’s it’s alright to sin as long as you’re careful about it? Where do you find that in the Bible? I’m one-hundred-percent sure that Martin didn’t intend that particular message—but that’s the message as received. I repeat: Anything less than a firm “no” can and will be interpreted as a qualified “yes”.

The Church—by that, I mean the Christian Church in general, as well as the Catholic Church in specific—is not in the business of half-measures, even as concessions to “reality”. Part of the duty of the Church’s teaching magisterium is to teach good moral judgment, which involves at the very least defining bright-line standards of Christian behavior. And that means teaching authoritatively … not apologetically.

Are people going to have illicit sex anyway? Sure they are. They’re also going to drive like maniacs, join violent gangs and ingest dangerous substances regardless of any law or enforcement powers. I can think of a whole host of things that “people are gonna do anyway”, behaviors and actions that no one in their right minds would ever consider legalizing let alone protecting as a right. And they are also going to suffer the consequences, sooner or later, of their poor judgment because that’s how the universe works. (If you ask me, temporal punishment for sins is more common than we think it is.) People are “gonna do it anyway” until the Church’s main mission—"making disciples of all nations" (Mt 28:19)—is fulfilled.

“If you’re gonna do x anyway” is an enabling statement. It gives implicit, even tacit, permission for people to do stupid things. Once you give people permission to exercise poor judgment, you have no reason or right to expect that they will suddenly gain sufficient wisdom to make the right call. Perhaps they’ll learn eventually—if no other way, then the hard way—but perhaps not.

Whether you call it a surrender to “reality” or to “inevitability”, it’s still a surrender, a striking of the colors. It’s an admission of failure, a concession that people’s hearts aren’t going to change, that they’re still going to pursue their selfish ends no matter what the Church says or does. And in that context, it’s a sign of a loss of faith more subtle and insidious than any apostasy. In fact, it’s more subtle than the kiss Judas gave his Master.

Beyond that, combining the enabling statement—“If you’re gonna perform stupid action x”—with the cautionary note—“at least take precaution y”—acts as a false promise. The person who lacks the wisdom to see why x is poor judgment will interpret y as a guarantee that doing x won’t harm them.

Of course, the person who lacks the wisdom to see why x is poor judgment won’t necessarily see the point in taking precaution y, or may not know that precaution y (e.g., The Pill) has dangers of its own (increased risk of heart attack). Once you’ve given people permission to exercise poor judgment by performing stupid action x, can you really expect them to show enough good judgment to take precaution y?

Understand, I’m not saying that the Church should show any less compassion for people who are the victims of their own poor judgment than it does for people who are the victims of misfortune or maliciousness. I do say, though, that to enable poor judgment by encouraging caution in its commission does nobody any favors.

In Douglas Adams’ So Long, And Thanks For All the Fish, a scientist realizes that the world has lost its marbles when he sees on the flap of a box of toothpicks instructions for their use. As he tells the protagonist, “I realized then that a world that had so far lost its senses that it needed instruction on how to use a toothpick was no longer a world I could remain in and stay sane.” I came near to such a revelation when a friend told me of a sticker he had seen on the cord of an electric hair dryer: DO NOT USE IN SHOWER.

It’s come to a point where our country is less interested in making the world safe for democracy than it is in making it safe for stupidity. And I find it sad that the Pope should be the last prominent person in the world to demand that we exercise good judgment.

No, Mr. Martin, we don’t need more church leaders to betray their teaching authority by pleading for cautious sinning. We need more church leaders to grow a backbone. We need to stop offering the false promise of sex without consequences. We need to stop giving people permission to exercise poor sexual judgment. We need more church leaders to teach … not beg, not opine, not mention.

Anything less is a betrayal of Christ.

Oh, Pope Benedict gets it alright. I wish more people did.