Saturday, November 20, 2010

Hey, Even Very Conservative Popes Can Learn to be Slightly Progressive!

Two news stories this week suggest that all hope need not be surrendered every time the name of Benedict XVI is mentioned.  Just when my cynicism is about to crest over, Benedict comes out and says a couple things that have needed to be said--by him--for a very long time.  (Kind of makes me want to invite him over for a cup of Earl Grey tea and Lorna Doone cookies. My mom would have approved of me serving Lorna Doones to the pope.  Loved them.)

This very conservative pope has taken a stand on government-promoted access to health care that is truly progressive (and, one has to add, totally in keeping with mainstream Catholic thinking on the right to quality health care).  Here's a link to an article by John Allen from the National Catholic Reporter:
"Pope Calls for Guaranteed Health Care for All People".  Good for him.  Let John Boehner (he who is so Catholic) fly to the Vatican and issue talking points against the pope if he wishes.  I'll play defense for Benedict on this one.

Then, another bit of news to make me think that an extra dose of logic has somehow been snuck into the Vatican (possibly strapped to the back of a squirrel?):  The pope has allowed that, on occasion, the use of condoms might not be a totally bad thing; in fact, they might just (the pontiff says ever so tentatively) represent responsible behavior.  Again, an NCR article reporting an interview the pope gave this summer to a German journalist:  "Pope Signals Nuance on Condoms."

Granted, Benedict has not gone so far as to endorse condoms as contraception for married people who love each other but who can't afford to get pregnant this year.  Nor has he endorsed them for married couples in which one partner is infected with HIV.  But he has stated that if you are a male prostitute and are engaged in a sexual act where no transmission of life is anatomically possible, well, then, okay, perhaps you might not be doing an evil thing by using a condom to avoid the transmission of a deadly disease to yourself or to others.  Yeah.  I know.  It's not a revolution in papal thinking on human sexuality and responsibility, but it is one small step in a good direction--that is, toward a recognition that many aspects of sexual morality involve nuance and the greater good, rather than a strict, unwaivering adherence to a code of canon law written in a rare-air environment that often doesn't seem to have much to do with what every day life looks like for many Catholics in the pews.

The truth is, much of Catholic teaching on human sexuality is very healthy and holistic in its outlook.  Contrary to what many have heard second or third-hand, the Catholic church does a pretty good job of teaching that sexual expressions of love are often beautiful and a reflection of God's incredibly generous, joyous love.  In some cases, of course, the church does seem to shout at people in a rather angry voice when the topic is sex. My point, though, is that Catholicism is not at its heart an anti-sex faith.  Yet that message gets lost--mutilated, even--when the Pope argues (as he did in 2009) that condoms will result in more AIDS cases in Africa, rather than fewer.  His statement in that case was not just silly but also dangerous in its disregard for the science of disease prevention.  (They're called prophylactics for a reason.)  But this time, the pope's reasoning shows not just better sense but greater compassion for his fellow human beings as well.  So I really mean it when I say that the pope's very recent concession on condoms matters.

Who knows?  In another twenty or thirty years, we may have a pope who teaches that John and Mary can make love guilt free--without checking the calendar or the basal thermometer, yet without chancing pregnancy either--after volunteering that morning at the soup kitchen, taking an elderly neighbor to church, and tucking in their four kids with another hour or two left in the weekend.  Hope I live long enough to see Pope John XXIV grant that interview.

Update... Nov. 23... The Vatican took it a step further today:  Condoms are morally justifiable in any situation, gay or straight, where a couple wishes to prevent transmission of a deadly disease.  In the Catholic church, this is not an insignificant development.  Contraception still gets a head-shake from the pope, but this is a welcome shift in sexual ethics teachings.  Have to say, I didn't expect this pope to do this.  Color me impressed.  From the New York Times:  "After Condom Remarks, Vatican Confirms Shift"

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