At our reading circle last week, the topic of the Pope’s recent remarks about condom use came up. Our friend Bill thought the Pope had made a terrible mistake, creating some unnecessary moral confusion. Others (self included) disagreed, and suggested he read George Weigel’s NRO article on the subject.
Weigel didn’t convince Bill.
I remain much of the same opinion regarding the lack of tact or wisdom in the pope’s remarks answering the question about condom use. Both Weigel and [Janet] Smith rush to defend the pope and place all the blame for the misunderstanding squarely on the media. In my view, this reaction should have been easily predicted and I place little blame on the media for simply being what they are, a secular sound bite machine.
A thought in reply to that last line before I go on to the central question:
Regardless of its predictability, media malpractice deserves condemnation. News outlets have a grave responsibility to inform the public accurately. When they instead distort and sensationalize, they do a serious disservice to the body politic. They ought to be called on it; they ought to be blamed for it.
Bill’s main concern, though, is not with the misreporting, but with the unwisdom of the Pope’s actual words, which he quotes.
“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.”
This was a weak response in my view. More appropriate response would have been, “No, I’m not saying that! The church IS opposed.” To only say “does not regard” sounds like its just a matter of opinion and to say, “not a REAL or moral solution” implies that nonetheless if does have some merit or may be tolerated. Leaving the discussion this way with no further follow up emphasizing the negative on condom use leaves the media and the world with just the exact impression it got, that the church was taking a step towards accepting or at least tolerating condom use.
To me, the question of the wisdom and prudence of the Pope’s way of speaking can only be ascertained in light of what he intended to convey. What moral problem is he addressing? Bill seems to take it for granted that the Pope’s concern is (or should be) exclusively, or at least primarily, the problem of artificial contraception. I think he has much broader and deeper concerns.
For instance, to me it is plain that the Pope is addressing a legalistic habit in Catholic ethos. He wants to say, in part, something like: “The way you look at this issue is not the way the Church looks at this issue. Your ways are not God’s ways. We are much more interested in and concerned with souls and with the interior life than you imagine, and it is there that we would like to direct your attention.”
In other words, the Pope is correcting an excessive objectivism and externalism in the approach to the moral life. He is being a personalist. He is teaching the rest of us to be more personalist.