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William Oddie FAITH Magazine January – February 2011

Ideal or Truth?

Nothing exceeds the endless voracity of the secular press for a dramatic front page headline. The fact is, they've all got to have front pages, each with its own "splash" headline. And if no real news turns up, what are they to do? During the run-up to the papal visit, we all got pretty well inured (if we weren't already) to the way in which the secular Press will take a Catholic news item, sometimes quite small in itself, and then turn it into a major news story which entirely misses the point. But the Pope's remarks about condoms to Peter Seewald for his book The Light of the World- naughtily leaked out of context and without commentary by the Osservatore Romano - surely produced the most dramatic example of this phenomenon for many years.

From the statement that "[The Church] of course does not regard [the use of condoms] as a real or moral solution [to the problem of HIV/AIDS], 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" (my italics) we somehow arrived at the astonishing Sunday Telegraph splash headline "Pope approves use of condoms to fight Aids" (under the strapline "Historic U-turn by Catholic Church). Grotesque, or what?

Quentin de la Bedoyere, in his Catholic Herald blog, said more or less what was or ought to have been already clear enough: "The Pope's statement that condom use is acceptable 'in certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection' has lit up the headlines. But put the lights out: nothing has changed."

Dr Janet Smith, on the Catholic World Report website, gave what may be something like an authoritative commentary (worth reading at much greater length than I can quote it here) on the particular example the Pope chose, one which caused a considerable raising of eyebrows.

"There may", said the Holy Father, "... 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 moralisation, 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 humanisation of sexuality ... The Holy Father does not in any way think the use of condoms is a part of the solution to reducing the risk of AIDs. As he explicitly states, the true solution involves 'humanising sexuality.'"

And that's all. The secular response is understandable: journalists need stories; it's not so much that they don't care about the truth, but that they really aren't necessarily equipped in a story about the Church, especially if they're not in any way religious, to recognise it when it's staring them in the face. But parallel to this kind of understandable secular distortion, there was a jumping on this particular bandwagon by liberal Catholics who really didn't have that kind of excuse, and whose reaction was for that reason more to be deplored. Perhaps the most informative example of the "historic U-turn by Catholic Church" syndrome among Catholic journalists was the Today programme's "Thought for the Day" on the morning after The Sunday Telegraph splash story,pronounced from on high by Clifford Longley, who is the BBC's token "authoritative" Catholic and the elder statesman of the Tabletistas -the Archbishop of Canterbury, as it were, of the modern liberal English Catholic tendency. My comments are interpolated in italics:

"When Pope Benedict came to Britain in September, almost everybody expected he was going to wag a disapproving finger at our sexual immorality. {No they didn't: only the atheist coalition was going on about his views on sexual morality Maybe Longley was, who knows? But he's not exactly typical of most ordinary Catholics.) But he didn't sound like that at all, and he's just proved himself to be the pope of surprises once more. The interview he gave to a German journalist has transformed the terms of the internal Roman Catholic debate about the use of condoms in the fight against Aids HIV. {No it hasn't: see Quentin de la Bedoyere, Dr Janet Smith, above and many others too numerous to mention). But I think he has actually changed much more than that. From today the entirepolar icecap of Catholic sexual morality has started to melt. {WHAT? What? Wishful thinking, or what? Read the pope's remarks in full: is there any way you could reasonably come to that conclusion?)

"Some will argue that nothing much has changed (you bet they will), and the Pope didn't change the Church teaching that contraception was sinful. But henceforth the emphasis changes from natural law, which is where the ban on contraception comes from to what the pope calls the humanising of sexuality (how is that a change of emphasis away from the natural law? The natural law is a body of unchanging moral principles known not from revelation (though parallel to it) but by reason, principles regarded as a basis for all human conduct: to speak in this way of "the humanisation of sexuality" is simply the understanding of the natural law in particular human circumstances: there is no movement away from natural law - say, to revelation or ecclesial authority; we are stillwithin its ambit. There is a real inability, already emerging in Longley's account, to understand the difference between juridical and pastoral discourse. The pope is a teacher of doctrine and the moral law; he is also a pastor: a pastor above all, and perhaps overwhelmingly most importantly when he speaks directly to his people, as he is clearly doing in this interview - that's why it's with a journalist, not a theologian).

"Benedict didn't just say", Longley continued, "that he could think of cases where condoms might be acceptable. Other senior figures in the Catholic Church have said as much or more, though it must be admitted no pope has gone that far before. But it's the reasoning he used which is much more significant. He has changed the conversation. He was asking, in effect, what does God want of us in each specific situation in which we find ourselves. (How is that a change of "the conversation?" That's what the Christian religion was always about, isn't it? What planet is this man living on?). How do we make a move in the right direction? That is not the conventional Catholic approach, which usually gives the impression that only the ideal is good enough and everything else is a mortal sin(usually gives that impression, does it? To whom? Anything but the ideal is a mortal sin? What rubbish is this? Is that really what liberals suppose orthodox Catholic teaching to be? They know perfectly well of course that it isn't, and only say so when, as Longley is doing, they have an axe to grind (here the only alternative explanation is an ignorance so profound as to be incredible).

"We might", Longley proceeds, "call this new approach 'gradualism' (new in what respect?). It doesn't drop the ideals, but it recognises that we can't all reach them in one move and some of us will never get there at all. But that doesn't prevent us from setting out (Again, what's new about that? That's what any normal priest tells his people all the time, in both pulpit and confessional). He gave the striking example of a male prostitute infected with HIV. If that man uses a condom to stop himself infecting others, that is a step in the right, virtuous direction a first assumption of moral responsibility as pope Benedict put it.... This unexpected outbreak of common sense (Unexpected how? Only in the sense that this kind of "common sense" is what all properlyinstructed Catholics have always lived by, so one doesn't expect it to be regarded as any kind of "outbreak") doesn't ask the traditional Catholic question "how far can you go" (How is that "traditional", rather than a perversion of Catholic moral teaching derived from a debased, half-jocular, popular understanding? What pope ever said or implied that Catholics should ask such a question or anything like it?)... it asks instead "what kind of person do I want to be?" or, in the context of faith "what kind of person does God want me to be, and how can I take some small step in that direction?" Once you pose the question that way, God knows, all sorts of possibilities appear."

But that is, of course, how the Church has always posed the question in relation to the spiritual journey of particular individuals: it has been, indeed, the whole basis of the Church's teaching about how we are to grow closer to God, and how the normal occasions of human life can nurture that process of growth. Hence, for instance (CCC 2227): "Children... contribute to the growth in holiness of their parents". No aspect of our lives falls outside this imperative to ask Longley's apparently newly discovered question "what kind of person does God want me to be, and how can I take some small step in that direction?" Thus (CCC 2461): "True development concerns the whole man. It is concerned with increasing each person's ability to respond to his vocation and hence to God's call." Above all(CCC 1784): "The education of the conscience is a lifelong task.... The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart."

"A lifelong task" says the Church (and always has): not a matter of muddling through life with some sort of impossible moral checklist, perpetually asking "how far can you go?", a question deriving not so much from the Catholic tradition as from the dilemma of cradle Catholics caught up in the maelstrom of collapsing social norms and carnal yearnings unleashed by the sexual revolution of the 'sixties, of which we can say, in Lady Bracknell's words "... I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to?"

"How far can you go?" was a question asked by those who wanted to have their cake and eat it: the Church never uttered it. It is a question, frankly, invented by and for theological liberals, for those who want to be in the Church as well as in the secular world, and who want, in the interests of a comfortable life, to reduce the area of contradiction between the two as much as possible. That's what Longley is really after: but it can't, it mustn't, be done. We are "signs of contradiction" or we are nothing. As Chesterton understood, "orthodoxy" is the exact reverse of what people suppose it to be, an assertion of "established" ideas and standards: the "chief merit" of orthodoxy, said Chesterton, is "that it is the natural fountain of revolution and reform". We are thesubversives: Longley is a distinguished pillar of the new Establishment. I daily expect him to be translated to the House of Lords.


Faith Magazine

January - February 2011