Saturday, November 27, 2010

What did the Pontiff really say?

It’s been a week now since L’Osservatore Romano released the extract from Pope Benedict XVI’s new book Light of the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald,[1] in which the Vicar of Christ said … well, something about condoms that caught everyone by surprise. (That is, everyone except for the emotionally stunted among the social liberals, the ones who stopped listening to the Church decades ago and now content themselves with whining variations of “Daddy doesn’t understand me”.)

What did the Pope really say? Even now the actual content of his remarks is a matter of debate, let alone its implications for sexual morality; this is despite the fact that the comments were printed, not simply overheard in passing. Whether the Pope’s comments have been overblown to the point of inviting dismissive clichés or truly a fundamental paradigm shift is a judgment call that needs some fifty or one hundred years’ distance to make dispassionately, without the injection of today’s sociopolitical obsessions.

I admit, like other conservative Catholic bloggers (see the link to Mark Shea’s blog in my last entry), I seized B16’s example of a male prostitute so I could pound the square peg down into the round hole of the pro-life movement’s aversion to contraceptives. We should all have been thinking more clearly. For if Benedict’s words meant what we thought they did, then the idea would obtain regardless of whether we spoke of homosexual prostitution or heterosexual fornication. The context was AIDS, not reproduction; to import contraception into the discussion was to do the Pope an injustice.

But this begs our original question: What did the Pope really say? What did he really mean?

In the disputed passage, Benedict tells Seewald that we are in need of a “humanizing” understanding of sexuality. This is a word that offers plenty of opportunities for further misunderstanding when taken out of the context of Catholic teaching.

At the bottom of much modern sexual theory are the presumptions of secular materialism and reductionism, by which Man can be caricatured as a “trousered ape”, an extremely clever animal whose intelligence makes no ontological difference. In this view, a “humanizing” sexual theory distinguishes itself from the (presumably) impossible demands of traditional Christian morality by making chastity optional and abstinence illegitimate … even perverse. Thus, the only permissible solutions to the spread of STDs, especially AIDS, must be technological in nature because social or behavioral changes are unnecessary, unrealistic and unnatural.

But when Benedict speaks of a “humanizing” sexual perspective, he works from the Christian presupposition that humans are different from other animals. It’s not just that our intelligence is so far beyond the needs of survival as to create an impassable chasm of comprehension between ourselves and our nearest genetic relatives. For one thing, very little of our behavior is “hard-wired”. For another, unlike other animals, we have a great ability to change our behavior without recourse to Pavlovian conditioning. Even the act of pondering whether there is such a thing as a soul sets us apart from other animals, let alone pondering the question in a brick neo-Georgian house while typing on a plastic polymer keyboard into a computer hooked up by wireless to the World Wide Web while wearing slippers and a warm, fluffy robe.

We believe we choose the vast majority of our actions, that we control most of what we do, say and think. Put differently, we hold it as an unspoken yet unshakeable certainty that there’s a vast gulf between being unable to stifle a yawn and being unable to stop yourself from robbing a bank or raping a child. If we honestly thought that bank robbery and child molestation were as uncontrollable as a blink or a sneeze, we wouldn’t waste a minute attempting to reform the perpetrator of either crime. Even those who hold to a rigid determinism, who most fervently deny free will, regularly behave and talk as though they could select from a menu of actions or thoughts. If they were really true to their philosophy, they would believe they have no power over whether they ask the person sitting next to them to pass the salt, let alone over what conclusions they derive from their observations.

To “humanize” our sexual beliefs, then, we must reintroduce the notion that our sexual behavior reflects active choices even more than biological and psychological responses. Our sexuality can’t be boiled down to the merely animal precisely because our sexual transactions occur between creatures that can not only think about what they’re doing but can also decide to do something else. There’s no point in taking pride in the fact that you can copulate: so can earthworms and jackasses. It’s a far more human response to consciously and deliberately not have sex when the opportunity arises.

Again, we ask, what did the Pope really say about condoms?
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 Catholic Church] of course does not regard [condom use to prevent the spread of AIDS] as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.

Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large of NRO Online, understands precisely where the Pope is coming from:
It’s a tired trope for Church critics to glibly suggest that the Vatican has the blood of millions on its hands because it doesn’t back condom distribution, particularly in Africa. That is as absurd as it is unprovable. The Church’s opposition to corruption, ethnic violence, and murder are just as pronounced and resolute, and yet such maladies persist in Africa as well. Are we to believe that African male prostitutes—no doubt devout Catholics all—were simply following Church doctrine when they declined to use condoms?
Benedict’s words are much more nuanced. A male prostitute may be taking the first step towards a more human view of sexuality by wearing a condom. Or he may not; he may be clean himself, and worried about getting AIDS from his trick. Alternately, he may never take the next step: understanding that prostitution is a fundamental misuse of himself as well as of others.


But why isn’t condom use a “real or moral solution”? It’s not a real solution because it doesn’t eliminate the risk of HIV transmission even with proper use;[2] its effectiveness against most other STDs is negligible.[3] Worse, people who use prophylactics tend to compensate for the risk reduction by increased engagement in risky sex, virtually eliminating any potential benefit. It’s not a moral solution because it panders to what the Pope called (in the same conversation) the “banalization of sexuality”: the deprivation of meaning from the sex act by trivializing it, by denying at one stroke both the unitive and procreative functions of sex. By proclaiming sex with condoms to be “safe”, not only is Planned Barrenhood engaging in what it does best—multimedia duplicity—they’re actually contributing to the problem by encouraging and enabling poor judgment, irresponsibility and the banalization of sex.[4]

Of course, since Paul VI reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s proscription of contraceptives in Humanae Vitae in 1968, people who bought into the myth of sexual liberation have been looking for some meager scrap of sign that, to use Roland S. Martin’s phrase, the Vatican “gets it”, that the last stone wall of resistance to unrestrained boinking is finally crumbling under the weight of reality. It makes perverse sense, then, that the liberals in the MSM (even the supposedly conservative Fox News) have pulled the Pope’s theoretical concession wildly out of context to produce evidence of a sea-change, a shift in the wind and the currents.

Meanwhile, those of us who have come to see the sense in Humane Vitae have been shaken out of our complacency. Because the Pope’s thoughts are very closely reasoned and relatively impervious to sound bites, he’s very easily misunderstood by people who have difficulty comprehending more subtle than a bumper sticker. All too often, today, it doesn’t matter what you said; it only matters what the media says you said.

Papal infallibility doesn’t preclude media missteps.


[1] San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010.
[2] There is a significant difference between “proper use” and “normal use”; it’s estimated that only slightly more than half of all males know how to put on a condom properly.
[3] Some scientists object that the relevant studies focused on prophylactics made of materials that have since been improved, and that the newer materials should have better rates. However, given the pharmaceutical industry’s tendency to exaggerate product benefits and minimize health risks, one is allowed to be skeptical.
[4] It’s disturbing to note how skilled the anti-child faction is at Orwellian doublespeak; Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League have a positively satanic ability to craft catchy phrases which adherents will repeat in defiance of sound logic and indisputable evidence.