Spring 2011, Vol. 13, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics blog

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
The Month of the Condom

Political Islamophobia

Our Christian Nation

Sharia Isn't OK

The Religion Gap Abides

Not a Witch but a What?

The Fall of Eddie Long

No Goyim Need Apply

The Golb Affair

Praying for Christopher Hitchens



From the Editor
The Month of the Condom

by Mark Silk

From November 20 to December 20, the still waters of the religion beat were disturbed by another one of those episodes in which reporters jump on a statement of the pope’s and are slammed for getting it wrong. This time around, however, it turned out that, with due allowance for headline writers, the reporters got it right.

It all started when Pope Benedict’s own newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, broke the embargo on his new book, Light of the World, which consists of an extended interview of His Holiness by German journalist Peter Seewald. Among a number of excerpts published by L’Osservatore was an exchange that began with the papal assertion that the use of a condom by an HIV-positive prostitute could 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.”

Say what? Mindful of the controversy Benedict had kicked up in March of 2009 by seeming to reject condom use out of hand in AIDS prevention, Seewald follows up: “Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?” To which the pope responds: “She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be, nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the infection, a first step in the movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexually.”

Immediately, the news services leapt into action. AP was first out of the box with “Pope: Condoms Can be Justified in Some Cases.” Then came Reuters with “Pope Says Condoms Sometimes Permissible to Stop AIDS.” The stories quoted the excerpts as they appeared, so that all could see how Benedict had hedged his point. But the bottom line was that, by saying that the use of a condom could be a step in the right moral direction, the pope was opening the door to their licit use—“a stunning turnaround,” as the AP put it in the first version of its story.

Was that mistaken?

Such was certainly the view of the first round of press criticism. On November 21, Mollie Hemingway of GetReligion (which al-ways views religion coverage from the starboard side) did her level best to downplay the significance of the story: “[E]ven if some dumbing down of these comments by reporters is called for, they’re giving the impression that the Vatican has turned about on birth control and condom usage. And that’s really not the case at all.”

This “nothing new here” critique would be rolled out time and again, as if Rome ever likes to announce a change of position as, well, a change of position.

On November 23, the pope’s spokesman, Federico Lombardi, told reporters that he’d talked with the pope and, yes, he’d really meant that he’d said. While Benedict had not talked the talk of formal moral theology, the doctrine of the “lesser evil” was being employed, Vatican sources said.

On the liberal wing, the Jesuit writer James Martin called this a “game-changer.” On the conservative wing, heads began to explode.

“Not an endorsement of anything,” huffed John Paul II’s biographer George Weigel. “I disagree with him,” declared British blogger Rev. Tim Finnegan. “This is really shaking things up big time,” said bioethicist John M. Haas. “Irresponsible” and “self-indulgent,” sputtered Luke Gormally, Ordinary Member, Pontifical Academy for Life, and Director Emeritus, The Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics.

In order to figure out what was going on, interested onlookers had available two indispensable sources: the posts of Austin Ivereigh, former editor of the Catholic weekly The Tablet, on America’s In All Things blog, and top Vaticanista Sandro Magister’s blog Chiesa. The key theological figure turned out to be Martin Rhonheimer, a priest of Opus Dei resident in Rome.

The central policy question concerned how the Vatican should judge condom use in third-world countries afflicted with HIV infection. On the one hand, the traditional Catholic approach to such a question—casuistry—takes the position that birth control technology is not itself morally problematic. The issue is the purpose for which it is used. Thus, it’s OK for a woman to take the Pill in order to control inordinate bleeding.

Yet Rome had never spoken on the use of condoms to prevent disease. And some very conservative moral theologians and their allies in the pro-life business—call them Ultras—were advancing the view that using a condom under any circumstances is an “intrinsic evil” so serious that doing so in the context of prostitution would only make the sin worse—adding one sin (condom use) to the original one (prostitution).

In 2004, Ivereigh commissioned Father Rhonheimer to write an article explaining the issue. When Rhonheimer—hardly a liberal and someone close to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to boot—laid out the traditional casuistic view that condom use is not ipso facto wrong, he was roundly attacked by the Ultras. Because there were cardinals arrayed on both sides, Ratzinger got together a group of moral theologians to examine the question. Then he became pope.

Where would he come down now that he had ascended to the See of Peter? As journalist David Gibson pointed out in a November 27 article in the New York Times Week in Review, Benedict had long been known for his opposition to taking a casuistical approach.

That opposition only seemed to be confirmed by his March 2009 comment that the epidemic could be aggravated by condom use. And when, in February of 2010, the Vatican’s health care office announced that it had stopped work on its study of the question, it looked like the papal nod had gone to the Ultras. There would be no Rhonheimerian push-back from Rome, no softening of the equation, condom = evil.
So Benedict’s comment to Seewald, backed by his spokesman’s clarification, really was a turnaround, a game-changer, even though it altered no official church teaching (since, in fact, no formal teaching existed). Insiders on both sides knew it, and even the Ultras had a hard time pretending otherwise.

To be sure, the back-and-forth created considerable confusion. It could not be denied that, as the news filtered out into the public square, there were those who concluded that the Catholic Church had, pure and simple, changed its position on birth control. Nuance is not the forte of the public square.

On December 20, the CDF issued an official declaration, in the form of a Note (“Regarding certain interpretations of ‘Light of the World’”). In exquisitely careful prose, it insisted that the pope’s words did not “signify a change in Catholic moral teaching or in the pastoral practice of the Church”; demonstrated how all the pope’s pronouncements on condoms and AIDS hung together; and declared that the doctrine of “lesser evils” should not be misinterpreted to suggest that prostitution with a condom is OK.

And then the CDF gave its doctrinal imprimatur to the pope’s contention that it is a positive moral step for an HIV-positive prostitute to use a condom, calling this “in full conformity with the moral theological tradition of the Church.”

In consequence, a Catholic health agency in Africa can now say without fear of a reproach from headquarters: “It is bad to prostitute yourselves and to frequent prostitutes, but if you are HIV-positive and do these things without using a condom it is worse. So if you are HIV-positive and do these things, you would do better to use a condom.”

Were the reporters who wrote the first stories about L’Osservatore Romano’s excerpt cognizant of the complete back story? Not likely. Did they recognize that the pope was saying something important—and that what he had to say represented a shift in Rome’s approach to the AIDS epidemic? Yes.

In a word, they got it right.


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