Friday, 3 December 2010

Where the rubber hits the road

One of the many controversies I missed while I was away was the extraordinary remark by Pope Benedict in his recent book Light of the World about condom use in the context of AIDS. As you remember, his opinion is that use of a condom by, for example, a male prostitute with HIV could in certain circumstances denote the first stirrings of a moral sense (the word used in English translations was 'moralization') which could lead in the direction of a fuller human understanding of sexuality. Commentators fell over themselves to interpret his words; on the left his words were welcomed as meaning that use of condoms was permissible to prevent the further spread of the virus, while on the right moral theologians weighed in to explain that, whatever he meant, he was not saying condoms could be used to prevent the spread of the virus. If you're not interested in my opinion, look away now.

I have no doubt the pope was doing what he has always done as a theologian and intellectual. He was making fine-line distinctions which are themselves not designed to become instant policy makers or breakers. He was positing the argument that on the scale of immorality an HIV sufferer's use of a condom could denote that person's initial awakening to the consequences of his actions. All immorality is in one way or another selfishness or egocentricity; use of a condom, argued the pope, could denote the start of a move away from that egocentricity.

So, should he have said it in his interview? Well, some people have become a bit precious about this issue, saying that being Catholic means sticking with the pope through thick and thin. Oddly enough, the pope is not one of those who says that! In fact much like John Paul II whose opinions were often turned by his admirers into lapidary and untouchable statements of supposedly eternal wisdom, I rather think this pope likes a good discussion. I would think much the less of him if he didn't.

So, while nobody is asking, I shall put forward my view that the pope was wrong both in his opinion and in the fact of putting it forward in this way now:

1) The opinion is wrong because one of the strengths of the anti-condom argument has been to contest the utilitarian advantages of condom use when it is abstracted from its sociological context. Rubber blocks the virus? That's all well and good, but we cannot assume that the conditions which prevail in laboratories are reproduced in the kinds of violent and abnormal sexual cultures in which HIV can be spread to large sections of a population. Condom use might not then denote an awakening moral sense, so much as an acquiescence to the darkness of the propaganda that condoms make you safe. I'm not suggesting rubber doesn't block the virus; I'm suggesting that in the concrete, people who think they're safe are more likely to behave in ways that are reckless. Now, the idea that condoms make you safe is evidently self-serving. In this case it is possible that using a condom is not a turning away from egocentricity, but rather egocentricity dressing itself up as altruism. The devil after all is the ape of God.

So, I think the pope's view is perfectly contestable. But what about whether it is right to have had that discussion in the book?

2) Frankly, I am simply staggered that after five years of walking backwards into several media wasps' nests this pope has once again given such a hostage to fortune. After Regensberg, after Williamson, could he not have foreseen that his remarks would never be understood as a searching inquiry into the emergence of a sinner from immoralization? So why give yet another hostage to fortune when it could have a massive impact on so many millions of people?

So there you have it. In my view, the opinion is at best debatable, and a worst a corroboration of the wrongheaded assumptions that underpin condom distribution in those countries affected by AIDS.

On the other hand, the fact of having said it was a colossal mistake. We should pray for the pope. What a terrible responsibility he has to bear.


Ben Trovato said...

I think you missed the Pope's point: it was that the intention to reduce harm to another [which might motivate somebody (wrongly) to think that using a condom was a good thing] might be the start of a moral awakening. At least, that's what he actually said...

GOR said...

Welcome back, Ches! Yes you did miss the eruptions following the Holy Father’s leaked comments in l’Osservatore Romano – which we’re now hearing were pre-approved (not the specific passages, but the excerpting) by the publisher contrary to what was enjoined on all other media.

As we’ve all talked it to death already I’m not going to go over all that ground again. But I would just say that I think much good will come from this book and that the predictions of imminent papal ‘disaster’ are premature. While I think the Holy Father may be overly generous about intentions in his comment, he is a charitable man and I suspect he seeks to see the best in people.

My other reason for optimism is that this book will generate discussion – as it already has – which will result in more awareness and, ultimately, clarity. I believe the Holy Father is not as na├»ve - in terms of the public and the media - as some people take him to be. And, when you think about it, Our Lord scandalized a lot of the people of His day by His words and actions.

Of course he didn’t have to contend with the New York Times, The Tablet or The National Catholic Reporter. But there were those darn Pharisees…