On Band-Aids

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn't there.
He wasn't there again today,
I wish, I wish he'd go away...

When I came home last night at three,
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall,
I couldn't see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don't you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don't slam the door...

Last night I saw upon the stair,
A little man who wasn't there,
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away...

--  "Antigonish" by Hughes Mearns (1899).

1.   There is a bit of conventional wisdom that says that the legacy of a leader lasts twice as long as the time the leader was in power.  In other words, George W. Bush was President of the United States for eight years, but the effects of his presidency will last for sixteen years after he left office in 2008, through to 2024.  And that seems about right--we are certainly in the middle of working through all of the consequences of his time in office, and it doesn't seem unreasonable that they will be with us for another eight years or so.

Pope John Paul II became Pope in 1978, and he died in 2005.  That's twenty-seven years.  By that measure, the legacy of Pope John Paul will be with us until 2059.  That's long after Pope Francis is gone, and likely long after his successor, and his successor's successor, have passed on.  The legacy of Pope John Paul is complex and multifaceted, befitting an enormously complex and multifaceted man.  But one aspect of that legacy is clear and unmistakable, and it will perhaps be the most difficult part of his legacy to move away from.  And it was on display in the most recent of Pope Francis's increasingly significant "airplane chats."

2.   I think it is fair to say that the central figure in the modern history of the Catholic Church's opposition to artificial contraception is Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II.  He was a member of the Papal Birth Control Commission, formed by Pope Paul VI to study the issue in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council.  He was also a key author of the so-called "minority report" of that Commission, which defended what it saw as the traditional teaching that contraception was never morally acceptable, which in turn became embodied in the famous encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968.

After Pope Paul VI died in 1978, the Cardinals first elected Albino Luciani as Pope John Paul I.  The great 20th Century moral theologian Bernard Haring, who knew Luciani well, was convinced that Luciani disagreed with Humanae Vitae and would have lifted the ban had he been the Pope for some reasonable period of time.  Of course, Pope John Paul I was only Pope for a few months, and whatever window existed in 1978 was thoroughly closed when Karol Wojtyla became John Paul II.  Pope John Paul II reiterated and retrenched on Humanae Vitae in several encyclicals, as well as his complex Theology of the Body teachings.  He also, it is generally believed, considered adherence (at least in public) to Humanae Vitae a litmus test for anyone who was under consideration to be made a bishop of other high office in the Church.

For Pope John Paul II, the basic philosophical and theological principle behind Humanae Vitae--that in order for sexual acts to be moral, "each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life." (Paragraph 11)--was not only correct, but of central importance to the Catholic world-view and Catholic life.  For John Paul, this was a non-negotiable, something at the heart of the Catholic faith.

3.  On the plane back from Africa, Pope Francis was asked the question that is often used to club the Catholic Church over the head--how can you justify your opposition to condoms in light of Africa's HIV infection rates, overpopulation, etc.?
Here was his response (in translation):

The question seems biased to me. Yes, it is one of the methods, the morality of the Church faces a bit of a predicament here. The fifth or the sixth commandment: defend life or a sexual relationship that is open to life. But this is not the problem. There is a greater problem than this: this question makes me think of the question they once asked Jesus: tell me Master, is it acceptable to heal on a Saturday? Healing is obligatory! Malnutrition, exploitation, slave labour, the lack of drinking water, these are the problems. We’re not talking about which plaster we should use for which wound. The great injustice is social injustice, the great injustice is malnutrition. I don’t like making such casuistic reflections when there are people dying because of a lack of water and hunger. Think about arms trafficking. When these problems cease to exist, then I think we can ask ourselves the question: is it acceptable to heal on a Saturday? Why are arms still being manufactured? Wars are the leading cause of death. Forget about whether it is acceptable or not to heal on a Saturday. Make justice and when everyone is healed, when there is no injustice in this world, then we can talk about Saturday.

In other words, "stop asking me questions about condoms, because what is really important is war, poverty, structural injustice, etc."  Later on, he called condoms a "band-aid" over the real problem.

Now, I think this statement is primarily important for what he doesn't say, but before getting to that, let's take the statement at face value.  First, I think that Western liberals grossly overstate the impact of the Catholic Church's opposition to birth control, as if the Catholic Church could magically fix the problems in Africa and other places simply by changing its position on the question.  Along those lines, the critique that Pope Francis has made previously that there is something problematic (and perhaps latently racist) about a Western approach that says "the primary problem with Africa is that there are too many Africans," is a critique that we should take seriously.  Finally, his bottom-line point that we should be focusing our attention on issues like hunger, political violence, and other human rights abuses is hard to disagree with.

But, here's the thing.  There is a simple answer to the condom question under Catholic moral theology.  It goes something like this.  "We can't justify condoms because using artificial contraception is inherently immoral, per Humanae Vitae.  It is black-letter Catholic moral theology that you cannot use an evil means to achieve a good result.  We don't believe in destroying villages in order to save them, and using condoms is destroying the village in order to save it, and so we oppose them.  Nothing else really matters."

That's basically what John Paul II said about the question.  But Francis never says that.  Nor, as James Alison points out in these two videos, did Pope Benedict say that.  Both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict gave elaborate answers to the condom question--different elaborate answers, but elaborate answers nonetheless.  When people avoid giving the simple answer in favor of a complicated answer, it is usually because they are not so certain they agree with the simple answer.  The fact of the matter is that Pope Francis, and Pope Benedict before him, has had countless opportunities to give a full-throated endorsement of the clear position articulated above all by John Paul II, and he has always declined.

Eventually, the most reasonable conclusion is that Pope Francis doesn't really believe the same thing about birth control that John Paul did.

4.   "But why doesn't he just say that?"  The answer to that question, ultimately, is because John Paul's legacy is still with us, and will be with us for a very long time to come.  It is because there is such a thing as the "John Paul the Great Catholic University" and the "Pontifical John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and Family."  If Pope Francis were to say, "John Paul was not that great, and he was totally wrong about marriage and family," he would be guaranteeing a schism (a schism that some of his conservative opponents, deep down, would welcome).  And his job, more than anything else, is to prevent that.  Pope Francis cannot make the man who isn't there go away.

Instead of directly confronting the legacy, Pope Francis's strategy is clearly to do everything possible to change the subject.  At every turn, and in every forum, Pope Francis steers the conversation away from the culture war issues and toward economic and social justice questions.  If he (and, likely. his successors) are able to direct the energies of the Catholic Church and Catholics onto those questions first and foremost, this creates time and space for the legacy of Pope John Paul to slowly and gradually fade, which it inevitably will.  As Pope Francis himself said on the plane "let's focus on feeding people and stopping wars, and once we solve that then we can turn to worrying about people using condoms."

Some will surely see that as weakness or lack of conviction on the part of Pope Francis.  But I see it as prudence and wisdom.  Pope Francis is an optimist, but he is also a realist.  If the Catholic Church truly decided to focus on poverty and war before worrying about birth control, it will never get around to the birth control stuff, and Pope Francis knows that.  And, while it is working on the poverty and war problem, perhaps the birth control question will become less charged with significance and symbolism, such that the Church can find a way to move off of the John Paul II position without tipping over the apple cart.  This move will also free up space to untangle the complex and tightly-bound knot that is Catholic moral theology on sex.  And in the mean time, people are being fed and clothed and protected from harm, which is what Pope Francis clearly thinks Catholicism should be doing in any event.

Changing the subject is a way to put a band-aid on the problem of the unworkability of Humanae Vitae.  But there is a reason why people use band-aids.  Sometimes you need one to tide you over before the wound heals.


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