Re: The Benedict Book and Condoms

I have thought for a long time that the most serious and insightful writer among what you can call the "right wing pundit" class was Ross Douthat, formerly of The Atlantic and now of the New York Times.  This blog post on Benedict's comments on condoms is one of the best discussions of the topic of the Church's position on birth control.

A couple of thoughts on Douthat's post.  First, the comment by then-Cardinal Ratzinger that specific scenarios regarding a couple's use of birth control cannot "be projected into the abstract" is interesting, for several reasons.  First, the entire focus of the birth control teaching as presented is about projecting the question into the abstract.  No greater example of this can be found that in Pope John Paul's Theology of the Body program, which more or less spiritualizes every aspect of non-contraceptive married sex.  It is really, really hard to square the circle of the approach taken by Ratzinger/Benedict as expressed in these interviews and that of John Paul. 

Second, the sentiment expressed by Cardinal Ratzinger is essentially identical to the position taken by the the Orthodox Church regarding birth control.  I spent the holidays with Father Justin, an Orthodox priest, and we discussed birth control both doctrinal and pastorally.  The approach in Orthodoxy is basically that it should be discussed on a case by case basis with your priest.  He told me that his general approach was to discourage but not forbid it.

Douthat's comment regarding the "persuasiveness" of the Church's teaching on birth control is worth more serious reflection, as opposed to the polemics that it usually generates.  No matter how you slice the numbers, there is a significant portion of people, particularly among the people who are actually sitting in the pews on Sunday, who are on-board all of the Catholic program except birth control.  No, the Catholic Church should not be run on the basis of polls.  But I think it is equally unhelpful to lump all those who have objections to Humanae Vitae into the category of "dissenters" without any distinction, as many of the partisans on this issue do.  In the second poll that Douthat cites (surveying those who go to Mass every Sunday), the only change that gets majority of support is on birth control--including the procedures on divorces and annulments, which even many conservatives think are dysfunctional, at least on an operational level.  Also, contra to those who talk at length about the "contraceptive mentality" leading to support for abortion, notice that there are three times as many who question the birth control position as question the abortion position.  There is something about the birth control teaching, and only the birth control teaching, that has proven problematic.  That is at least worth thinking about.

In the interests of full disclosure,  I will confess that I have always found Humanae Vitae and its progeny deeply unpersuasive on many levels.  So, I suppose that this makes me one of those "dissenters".  Perhaps I will go into my concerns in later posts, but the bottom line is that I just have never been convinced by the arguments.  I guess that's why I respond to Douthat's posting.

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