More on Pope Benedict

Pope Benedict has a new book coming out on Wednesday, which takes the form of a long interview with journalist Peter Seewald.  "L'Osservatore Romano", the Vatican City newspaper, published some very interesting excerpts from the book.  The big story for most commentators is the Pope's comment that it is more moral for an HIV infected male prostitute to use a condom than not use a condom.  That would seem to be a non-story: condoms are a problem from a Catholic perspective because they are a form of birth control, not because they are some kind of morally cursed object.  If you are engaging in sexual activity that is inherently not capable of leading to conception (i.e. gay sex), then it doesn't matter whether you are wearing a condom, except insofar as it prevents someone else from getting an STD.  That seems to me to be completely divorced from the question of whether condom use is OK to prevent the spread of HIV via heterosexual sex, a topic which, based on the excerpts, the Pope does not seem to directly speak to.

Except that's not all the Pope said.  George Weigel, the Catholic commentator perhaps best known for writing the 1,000+ page biography of Pope John Paul II and telling us that he understands Catholic Just War theory better than Pope Benedict (since, after all, he's right and the Pope is wrong visa vie the Iraq War), wrote a quick reaction piece for National Review Online, informing us that There Is Nothing To See Here.  Except he quotes a more extended section of the book from the L'Osservatore Romano portion, and gives us the part right after the quote about the male prostitute.

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.
Seewald: Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?
Benedict XVI: 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 risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.

Then, this quote in the L'Osservatore Romano piece caught my eye.

The perspectives of "Humanae Vitae" remain valid, but it is another thing to find humanly accessible paths. I believe that there will always be minorities that are deeply persuaded of the correctness of those perspectives and that, in living them, will be so fully rewarded that they will become for others a fascinating model to follow. We are sinners. But we should not take this fact as evidence against the truth, when that high moral standard is not met. We should seek to do all the good possible, and sustain and support one another. To express all of this from the pastoral, theological, and conceptual point of view as well in the context of current sexology and anthropological research is a great task to which we must be more and better dedicated.

It is not at all clear to me what this means---in particular, what does "find[ing] humanly accessible paths" mean? 

Weigel provides a quote in his story that I think gets to the heart of what the Pope is getting at in general:

If someone was going to rob a bank and was determined to use a gun, it would be better for that person to use a gun that had no bullets in it [for that] would reduce the likelihood of fatal injuries. But it is not the task of the Church to instruct potential bank robbers how to rob banks more safely and certainly not the task of the Church to support programs of providing potential bank robbers with guns that could not use bullets. Nonetheless, the intent of a bank robber to rob a bank in a way that is safer for employees and customers of the bank may indicate an element of moral responsibility that could be a step towards eventual understanding of the immorality of bank robbing.

In other words, it is important to recognize sometimes there are things present in a bad situation that you can "work with," without having to endorse the situation as a good thing.  But having recognized the key to the Pope's statement, Weigel characteristically falls back on the idea that this is the same as the Previously Approved Talking Points, and that Our Talking Points Are Right and Yours Are Wrong, etc. (though, his line about Salvation through Latex is a good one---I don't like Weigel, but he's great with the one liners).  To say it another way, having acknowledged that perhaps there is more to Catholic thought than screaming "Condoms Are Bad", Weigel proceeds to scream "Condoms Are Bad."  Weigel is tiresome.

Nevertheless, I think we see yet another example of Pope Benedict moving away from Church governance through campaign slogans, and toward a more nuanced and practical approach.  While it is often a mistake to take seriously the comments sections of websites (let alone the National Review), proof of this is found in Comment #3 to Weigel's article

This said, one must ask what is Benedict XVI's problem. Dropping such ruminations in a personal book, absent clearer Magisterial guidance, can only provoke confusion. One would have hoped, after Regensburg, that Benedict would have realized that the Pope must not only be a theologian, ruminating at his lectern, but also a diplomat, knowing what to say (and not to say) and when. WIth all respect, this papacy has tended to be tone-deaf in this regard: Regensburg, the Williamson affair, and now condoms suggests that the Holy See still does not "get it" as to how his statements will be spun in a pluralistic and often hostile world, and therefore the need to temper his readiness to speculate theologically with a greater measure of prudence.

In other words, Pope Benedict needs to stay on message, like a good political candidate, and keep to the Previously Approved Talking Points.  But the Pope is not a political candidate, and maybe the P.A.T.P. are not sufficiently explaining things.  And maybe, by sticking only to the P.A.T.P., the person (such as the male prostitute mentioned by the Pope) who is holding on to a small measure of human dignity will abandon it, thinking that the Church is rejecting him or her in total.

Pope Benedict's job is not to win elections or to convince the "electorate" of the world (let alone America) that he is right.  His job is to save souls.  And if he thinks that some male prostitute somewhere can be saved through his statements, then I think he is doing his job.


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