Well, if anything could get me out of “radio silence” and back onto this blog it would be the somewhat surprising news out of Rome regarding comments by the Holy Father, Pope Benedict about the use of condoms!
First of all, it’s probably a good thing to make sure we have as much of the facts. Thanks to Rocco Palma (Whispers in the Loggia) for directing attention to The Catholic World Report for a more extensive quote from the Pope. In the quote one can once again get a palpable sense of the man, Joseph Ratzinger, who is a deeply feeling person. It confirms the growing sense that I have of a man who is not blinded by ideology; conservative or liberal, but rather by reason, and faith in the Gospel. He is a very pastoral person. I have heard this from various types of people who have had personal interaction with him. I have also heard “stories” of accidental encounters with Joseph Ratzinger on plane rides back to Germany where some deeply healing conversations took place. There’s also the Covenant House story… but I’ll get back to that later.
The context of this quote from B16 is a reflection on his last trip to Africa where the Pope was being challenged on the Church’s stance regarding condoms and HIV. The Pope reflects…
Someone had asked me why the Catholic Church adopts an unrealistic and ineffective position on AIDs. At that point, I really felt that I was being provoked, because the Church does more than anyone else. And I stand by that claim. Because she is the only institution that assists people up close and concretely, with prevention, education, help, counsel, and accompaniment. And because she is second to none in treating so many AIDs victims, especially children with AIDs.
The Holy Father is basically insisting that a true answer to the what his happening in parts of Africa where HIV is a major issue, and in other parts of the world also, is to provide a holistic approach rather than just a band-aid (or in this place a condom). Yes, it is tragic that women are forced into sexual slavery and end up having sex with HIV positive men. But can’t we do more than just give them a condom? Can’t we ask, why women are forced into such situations? Can’t we care about the whole person?
This example is a good one to understand what the Holy Father is really saying. He’s admitting that there are situations which are so desperate, that the person is not capable of entering fully into the Church’s vision for an expression of sexuality in its fullness and beauty. In fact the very act of wearing a condom to protect the other person, may be the very beginnings of moral reasoning and a first step towards moral maturity. Again as the Pope states:
…this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, 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.
This thinking does not seem to be new for the Holy Father. In 2006 I have the privilege of meeting Bishop Kevin Dowling, a Redemptorist, who is bishop of the Diocese of Rustenburg in South Africa. Bishop Dowling was speaking at the Marists National Justice Festival and the bishop spoke of the desperate struggle of his people with HIV. What he described were situations that were to some extent “pre-moral”… that is where people did not have a sense of their own freedom of choice. In this situation Bishop Dowling has been a supporter of the use of condoms… within the spectrum of care which the Catholic Church provides… including education in sexuality, in moral reflection and ultimately by standing by people no matter what happens. The Pope says that himself:
We must stand close to the people, we must guide and help them; and we must do this both before and after they contract the disease.
Bishop Dowling has been much maligned by some in the Church. But he is still Bishop of his diocese. That would not happen without the Pope’s willing it to continue.
Another interesting story is from when I was a young friar in the early 80’s. There was talk among the friars that the late Bruce Ritter, founder of Covenant House had secured the support of then Cardinal Ratzinger for the use of condoms at Covenant House for street kids engaged in prostitution. Again, the thought here was that the condoms were not being used so much for contraception but to protect people’s health in the wildly “amoral” environment of the street. We would not want the kids to die before we even get a chance to evangelize! According to Franciscan lore this arrangement was scuttled by some U.S. bishops who saw it as opening Pandora’s box.
Watching the news last night and this morning it certainly feels a bit like Pandora’s box is empty, as reports keep coming in about the Church relaxing its stance on contraception. This has nothing to do with contraception. It’s all about common sense and protecting people from dying.
In the way the Pope has just made the Church’s position both more difficult to understand… nuances don’t always get conveyed in news clips or blogspots. B16 has also made the Church’s position more clear…what we are about is helping people to grow and become more and more the persons God has called us to be… fully alive, fully sexual, fully human… it is
a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.
This vision of the Holy Father has presented in these days is both challenging and beautiful. As a parish priest he has made my work a lot easier… he has highlighted the Church’s deep pastoral sense and our desire to call everyone to greatness. This is a challenge, a Gospel challenge, I hope to take up.