In fact, the Pope hasn’t changed anything.
Over the summer I ran a camp for 52 screaming kids. The only way to get them to go to bed was to tire them out. So we played what we called “ship”. Imagine, 52 kids on a field of grass; two parallel lines about 40 feet apart. The lines represented the bow and the stern of a ship. I was the captain and gave the commands. When “bow” was shouted, all ran to one line, when “stern”, to the opposite. The last child over the line was always eliminated. At first the kids ran at high speeds trying to be in the front, until they realized that being in the front could instantly be equivalent to being in the back—when the command was suddenly changed. After a few minutes the brighter kids caught on: it’s not about being fast, but about staying in the middle of the moving crowd of children.
Pope Benedict has remained in the middle of the pitching and bucking boat on this sometimes violent sea of life. Salt water from the right: “Church condemns condoms, period. What’s wrong with the Pope? He can’t change this.” Salt water from the left: “Hurrah, change has finally come! But, why doesn’t the Pope allow condoms in all cases?”
Neither got it. In fact, the Pope hasn’t changed anything.
The “Benedict-effect” works the same way every time; the Pope says something quite Catholic—balanced between port and starboard—and the world reacts. Some don’t like the balance, some miss the boat completely. This happened in Regensburg when he commented on the violence brought by Islam, it also happened when he lifted the excommunication of the four bishops ordained by Lefebvre, and it happened again when he talked about condom-use in Africa. (To mention only a few.)
A matter of fact, the “Benedict-effect” effect used to be the “Ratzinger-effect”, when he was still wearing the red hat. Remember Dominus Jesus? Ratzinger signed this document which was sort of in-your-face about Catholicism. The document boldly reiterated the NEED the Church has of proclaiming the Gospel to all peoples as the command of Jesus Christ, precisely because Christian revelation is definitive. Back then, the reactions were just as varied, and Cardinal Ratzinger was just as misunderstood. Not only from open sea (those who miss the boat), but also from both sides of the boat, the Cardinal was soaked. Some wanted more laxity, other told him he wasn’t buckling up, or buckling down, quite enough, and the boat missers ... well, they jump at any chance to bash the Church.
And now, Benedict has done it again. What’s the story this time? The Pope says using condoms could be a first step towards morality. And once again many boat missers, or warriors from other boats, have reacted. They have used the press to aim and fire their cannons. And not only that, his fellow sailors, as it were, are once again splashing salt water.
Yet The Holy Father has remained comfortably safe between stern and bow.
To say that the pope condemns condoms is ridiculous; it’s like saying he condemns using rat poison to kill someone. When someone gets on your nerves, the correct reaction is not to add a deadly potion of rat poison to his soup. Headline would NOT read: “Pope condemns rat poison,” but more accurately “Pope condemns murder.”
In the case of sexuality, the Church—to clarify—teaches that the sanctity of the marriage act should be safeguarded. The two purposes of holy sexuality within God’s blessing in marriage are: 1) for the sake of the intimate union of the spouses and 2) for the purpose of procreating children. When condoms are used—within marriage!—these purposes are separated and the sanctity of this marriage act is destroyed. It’s not just about the condom, but about contraception, which thwarts the essence of marital sexuality.
Killing another human being—which parallels sexuality in this example—is not good or bad in and of itself, neither is the physical act of having sex. Marriage is the only place where sexuality fulfils its true meaning in both senses mentioned above. Likewise self-defence is the only way killing another human being can be noble and proper. So when “getting on my nerves” turns into “threatening my life,” the Church rightfully teaches that you have the right to defend yourself.
This example is not perfect, because using rat poisoning for the purpose of self-defence is only almost unthinkable. Whereas using condoms in the marriage act is always impossible. Why? Because the intention to kill, while defending oneself, thwarts the act and makes it evil; this mirrors the use of condoms within the marriage act, which, of necessity, separate union from procreation and thus make it morally wrong. The Church is not against condoms per se, but against contraception in marital sexuality.
Way on the other side of the spectrum are the sinful actions carried out by the prostitute, the pedophile or the adulterer. This is where the pope’s comments come in. He said it could be a first step towards morality for a prostitute to use condoms. Kind of like the mass murderer who decides to use rat poisoning over a chainsaw, because the poison will get the job done with less pain. Both are evil, one is less evil.
Let’s face it: there are many individuals who have no desire at all to be in the boat because they are making a killing off of immorality: prostitution, internet porn, abortion, contraception etc. They are however extremely interested in what the Holy Father says about morality—he ruins their business, so they do their best to put him out of his business, the salvation of souls.
And for those of us who are IN the boat, well ... if you stay in the middle, when she heaves and bucks in the storm, you will probably still get wet, but at least you won’t get washed away. And ... that’s where Benedict will be, probably causing more “Benedict-effects”, however doing so precisely because he continues to be perfectly balanced between port and starboard.
Nathan Miller, LC studies for the priesthood in Rome. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org