When Are Points Not Worth Making?

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The media firestorm swirling around Pope Benedict’s discussion of morality and condom use seems like a good illustration of the problem of great trouble and anguish being caused by making completely true and reasonable points. The pope’s comment itself is both true and sensible: there is nothing magically wicked about condoms in and of themselves, rather it is using them in order to render sexual relations sterile which is immoral. However, because the pope is such a uniquely high-profile figure in the world, both those (inside and outside the Church) who are desperately eager for the Church to approve artificial contraception as morally licit, and those who live in constant fear that the faith will somehow be betrayed to the ravening hoards outside, immediately went into full freak-out mode.

Various writers who consider the Church’s stance on birth control to be hopelessly backward immediately declared a “first step”.

Nervous traditionalists took pause, yet again, to publicly worry that Benedict is betraying them.

And, doubtless, many people (Catholic and otherwise) who don’t pay much attention to such issues noticed the headlines, didn’t read any in-depth coverage, and quietly filed away in the backs of their minds, “Oh, so Catholics can use birth control under some circumstances.”

This kind of thing can be frustrating to those who care deeply about exploring the nuances of moral points. On the one hand, what the pope said is completely true. On the other, the way in which it became publicized will doubtless lead more people into error than into truth. Does this mean that such nuanced discussion of high profile moral issues should simply not happen? Or that it should not be undertaken by someone as high profile as the pope?

It seems anti-intellectual to say that issues sufficiently borderline as to present the danger of leading people astray should simply not be discussed. And yet, at a certain level, the purpose of our Church is to bring people to heaven — including ordinary people who are easily unsettled or deceived — not to serve as a debating society for a small number of people who are educated in the finer points of theology. Ideally, it would be possible for the pope to discuss such issues in venues primarily read by those capable of understanding what he is saying, and not have his comments distorted and repeated out to those who are likely to be confused or upset. Yet in a world of mass global communications that seems clearly impossible.

The same technology which makes it more possible than ever for anyone, anywhere to access Church documents and other sources of Catholic teaching which were much harder to come by only a few decades ago also makes it all to easy for a line or two to be pulled out of context from some longer statement and flooded all over the world in a matter of hours. Whether that means that prominent thinkers must now be more circumspect in what they choose to discuss at all than was the case in the past is probably a question worth giving at least some thought to.

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  1. I think one further factor to consider here is that, even if there is confusion around what the Pope said, that does not mean that people know less about Catholic teaching than they used to. Most people (inside and outside the Church) don’t know what the Church says on this stuff. Just yesterday, a Protestant who has known me for years, shocked me by suggesting that Catholics can only have sex when procreation is explicitly intended. Public discussion can’t do that much harm when everyone is already mistaken on the question in question.

  2. I agree, somewhat, with Darwin here, but I feel the truth of Brett’s remark. What has been surprising to me isthe very great number of people who *think* that they know what the Church teaches in this area but who, judging from their frankly hysterical response to Benedict’s comment, really have no idea of the principles behind the Church’s sexual ethic. This points to a serious failure in catechesis–on the part of bishops, priests, and even the laity.

    Now, all this being said, I also think–but here I am open to correction–that Benedict’s statement *does* open the door somewhat for the Church’s prudential support of *some* ways of handling the HIV epidemic in Africa in *certain instances* which up until this point the hierarchy was wary of supporting. It seems to me that once you allow (1) the context of illiceity of sexual activity and (2) the possibility that using a condom in such illicit sexual activity *may* be a step toward arriving at a more fully human version of sexuality, at some point during which the illicit actions would cease altogether, then you have an argument for the *prudential* and *careful* acknowledgment that *certain* sectors of the population, *if* it is known that they will be acting illicitly in any case, *may* be encouraged “at least to use a condom.” Am I wrong here?

  3. Your point seems to me well taken.

    In family life, among friends, at work, and in broader discussions like this, one simply must take the audience into account and ask how nuanced statements will be simplified and whether such simplification will have other than the intended meaning. This is particularly true for “public figures” such as heads of state.

    I seem to recall that His Holiness had a similar experience when he offered an academic point on the perceptions of Islam in the West.

  4. No you are not WJ, and that is precisely why the Pope’s off the cuff remark is a disaster. People are going to argue that it is morally licit to use a condom to prevent STDs and the Church’s stand against this form of contraception goes right out the window. I cannot put a smiley face on this one. The Pope blundered and he blundered badly in apparently not recognizing the firestorm his theorizing would cause.

  5. Donald,

    But I think this formulation is too vague: “People are going to argue that it is morally licit to use a condom to prevent STDs.”

    People may argue anything they wish, but the disputed proposition: “That it is morally licit to use a condom to prevent STDs” needs to be clarified and made more precise before you can even begin to affirm or deny it.

  6. Yes, WJ’s post demonstrates the problem perfectly. No, the Pope didn’t say it could be licit to encourage condom use in certain circumstances. He simply pointed out that there are different levels of seriousness of sin, and someone who’s living a life of depravity might try to take a first step out of it by replacing a more serious sin (giving someone a deadly disease) with a lesser (but still serious) one like using a condom. It would be wrong to tell someone it’s okay to skip Mass every other week. But if someone goes from attending once a year to attending once a month, we can recognize that as a positive change while still understanding the remaining sin involved.

    I’m thinking that this kind of nuanced application of dogma to specific circumstances belongs in the confessional or rectory office, or even the pulpit, but not an edited interview. Not only is DarwinCatholic right about how it affects the three groups of people he mentions, but it was completely predictable that it would do so. Did we learn nothing from the way Humanae Vitae was treated? Millions of Catholics already thought artificial birth control was okay, despite that document’s complete opposition, simply because its very existence gave dissenters a context to go out and preach as if it taught the opposite.

    It’s just not enough to say, “Well, if you look at what the pope really said….” That’s not how it works in today’s world, if it ever did. If you want to get your message out clearly, you have to make it happen yourself. You can’t chat into a microphone for a while and expect that when it gets edited down and discussed in the press, your points will be clear and treated fairly. That will not happen.

  7. Brett,

    I can see that to an extent, though I think people starting out in some degree of ignorance many not necessarily mean that any change is good. For instance, if a Catholic starts out with the idea that “the Church says condoms are eeeeeeeevil” and gets from this some muddled idea of “actually, the pope says it’s okay to use condoms sometimes” I think that person would have been made worse off. His original idea would have been a distortion of Catholic doctrine and lacked an understanding of why we don’t use contraception, but this new mistaken view is likely to be more destructive than his old mistake view in regards to his own life and morality.

    Nor, to be honest, am I all that optimistic that many non-Catholic are learning why the Church really teaches as it does about birth control as a result of this, since most of the reporting is so ignorant as to be little help in that regard.

    All that said, if one told the pope he could never speak on any nuanced topic at all for fear of being misreported and thus harming people, the pope could never say anything and that would be rather useless.

    I don’t have an answer here on this particular issue — though I think L’Osservatore Romano is rather at fault in this case for making a poor selection of quotes, given how avidly watched they are. And like all such teapot tempests, this will blow over soon enough and be forgotten by most people.

    I do think there are some topics which it’s problematic to spend too much time speculating, especially before a mainstream audience, however, because poking around the fringes can sometimes cause more harm than good in regards to understanding.


    It seems to me that once you allow (1) the context of illiceity of sexual activity and (2) the possibility that using a condom in such illicit sexual activity *may* be a step toward arriving at a more fully human version of sexuality, at some point during which the illicit actions would cease altogether, then you have an argument for the *prudential* and *careful* acknowledgment that *certain* sectors of the population, *if* it is known that they will be acting illicitly in any case, *may* be encouraged “at least to use a condom.” Am I wrong here?

    I think the problem is when we get to the word “encourage”. When you start encouraging people to do something, even when you say you consider it the lesser of evils, people immediately start getting the idea it’s okay.

    Pick something there’s agreement between the Church and secular culture is wrong and I think this becomes pretty clear: If the Church tried to reduce the injury to women in cultures where wife beating is common by saying, “Beating your wife is always wrong, but if you really must do so, please use a leather strap rather than a baseball bat, metal wrench, or other hard object. We would be happy to distribute leather belts to at any of our missionary facilities for this purpose.” I think people would be justified to run with the headline, “Church Endorses Wife Beating!!!”

    It seems to me that people who are already having illicit sex are prettly clearly willing to do what they want regardless of what the Church says, and that by pushing condoms through its organizations in Africa and other AIDS stricken areas the Church would mainly serve to destroy its ability to communicate its teaching on sexuality, and accomplish very little (if anything) to anyone’s benefit in slowing the spread of AIDS.

  8. Aaron,

    Though to be fair, the interview in question was an un-edited, book-length interview by a journalist who has been completely fair and transparant with similar interviews with Ratzinger prior to his becoming pope. In this case, I think the inciting incident was L’Osservatore Romano’s choice to publish a short excerpt including that section of the book.

    But I think there is, at times, a danger for those who are deeply educated in theology to get interested in quirky moral situations which, presented to the wrong audience, can end up confusing ordinary lay people more than educating them.

  9. I’m not sure how you discuss contraception without getting into nuance anyway, so I can’t fault the pope. I also don’t think it’s healthy to pretend a moral doctrine has no nuance when it does-intellectual dishonest may be more damaging than the misleading nuance. The Church is about truth, and not recognizing truth simply b/c the truth is difficult to explain is very dangerous doctrine to accept.

    The real culprit is LOR, who instead of waiting for the MSM to dig through a book to find this quote, served up the out of context quote on a silver platter, ripe for misinterpretation. They practically did the MSM’s job for them. Severe consequences for this, just the latest in a line of embarrassments from that paper, need to come.

  10. In the context of homosexual “sex,” how is condom use in and of itself illicit? It has no contraceptive effect at all. Homosexual “sex” is certainly morally illicit, but I honestly don’t understand why or how the introduction of a condom in that context can be immoral. If anything, it can be, as the Holy Father suggests, a morally responsible act that lessens the overall sinfulness by trying to avoid giving (additional) injury to another.

  11. There are so many hidden parts to this story that one might have to be Sherlock Holmes to put it all together. Why did the Vatican’s newspaper publish an excerpt of a rather long abstract conversation that the Holy Father had with Peter Seewald concerning an admitted very rare situation on the subject of condoms? The book is loaded with all kinds of fascinating info in which the Holy Father tells Peter Seewald his thoughts on the Abuse Scandal, Father Maciel, Islam, the world economy, and on and on. Yet, an abstract thought is published. The Holy Father has never claimed to be adept at political spin, but there are many in the Vatican who are. Why did someone (some people) allow this abstract thought to be published in the Vatican’s newspaper. What did they hope to gain? Did they hope to change the Church’s stance on birth control, or did they want to embarrass the Holy Father?

  12. Dave,

    I think you’re overestimating the intelligence of the LOR folk; it’s unlikely that this was the result of some grand conspiracy, and more likely that it resulted from sheer incompetence.

    I have another question that perhaps a moral theologian might answer. If you *know* that a male prostitute will be engaging in illicit acts of sex with other males and you give him a condom and tell him that he must think of others, etc. are you formally cooperating with evil?

  13. WJ said: If you *know* that a male prostitute will be engaging in illicit acts of sex with other males and you give him a condom and tell him that he must think of others, etc. are you formally cooperating with evil?

    I think one would have to instruct the prostitute that engaging in illicit sex is wrong, with or without a condom.

  14. Zeppo,
    Sure, that is sensible, but it does not answer WJ’s question — unless you are suggesting that the boilerplate instruction gives warrant for such distribution. Frankly, I have always thought that the answer to WJ’s question, was yes until I studied “formal cooperation” and concluded that the answer was not so obvious and perhaps contingent on other subsidiary facts and circumstances.
    A similar question has come up in the context of the distribution of clean needles to users of illegal drugs, and it has been the subject of considerable debate on this very forum IIRC. I originally argued in favor of always immoral, only to allow additional self-study to confuse me into less certainty.
    I continue to think that the actual use of condoms by homosexual prostitutes is an easier moral question; the distribution of such items for such use strikes me as more fact dependent, though in the end both may involve prudential calculuses — unlike homosexual sex itself, which is intrinsically immoral.

  15. I don’t think L’Osservatore Romano is “the Vatican’s newspaper” in the same sense it used to be. At least, not in the sense I thought they used to be. The best analogy I can think of is, unfortunately, the way Pravda was the voice of the Soviet Union.

    On a bit of a tangent, I don’t like what the internet has done to the way many (including me) view the Vatican. We want to know the inner workings, and look for subtle power plays. I wish I approached the Church more with reverence and less with sophistication.

  16. WJ, I am the last person who believes in conspriacy theories. I simply believe that someone or some group had an agenda. As I indicated, there were so many excerpts that would have been far more fitting than the one they used.

  17. I’ve not joined those who’ve been strongly critical of Gian Maria Vann’s tenure as editor of L’OR… until now.

    With others here and elsewhere, I concur that this was a major error on Vann’s part… of *all* the excerpts he could’ve chosen to publish, why this one? And why do so while the book was under embargo?

  18. Chris

    I would ask what Ignatius thought of L’OR ‘s publication of the excerpts; I still can see it as being pre-planned by the two to get people talking and thinking about this very section of the book, and perhaps the Pope himself wanted it to be out in the public like this. We don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the case. This strikes to me as something planned, not a mistake.

  19. Henry,

    Prima facie that’s certainly plausible, but given that IP’s “official” blogger, Carl Olson, has been quoting and linking articles critical of L’OR’s actions at the “official” IP blog tells me otherwise.

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