On My Mind / Essays On Success

Pontiff and Pastor

Condoms okay?  What was the Pope thinking?

Praise and condemnation flowed in equal measure as headlines blared the news: "Pope says condoms sometimes permissible to stop AIDS" or "Pope: Condoms OK for Women, too."  AIDS activists cheered; right-wing bloggers fumed.  L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's own newspaper, incurred withering criticism for scooping the story on the Pope's alleged approval of condoms.

But Pope Benedict XIV didn't actually say that.

What he did say, in a long interview with German Journalist Peter Seewald, is that using a condom to prevent the spread of disease might be evidence of a person's moral awakening to the need to avoid harming others.  The Pope hastened to repeat his consistent statement that condoms are not a moral solution to the AIDS crisis, but that their use may be justified in specific cases to reduce the risk of infection.

 Did the Pope waffle?  Can a moral leader be successful if he opens a window for debate on once-irrefutable teachings?

 The Pope did not waffle, but he did send a nuanced message.  His message is that he understands the complexities of human life, that people often have to make choices among competing moral values.  In one of his more startlingly pragmatic statements in the interview, while expressing some frustration that his entire trip to Africa in March 2009 was overshadowed by critical reaction to the comments he made at that time reinforcing traditional Church teaching on condoms, he said, "As a matter of fact, you know, people can get condoms when they want them anyway. But this just goes to show that condoms alone do not resolve the question itself."

So!  The Pope knows that people often go about their business without following the rules?  That is not exactly a news flash, and yet, his acknowledgement of the facts of life seems refreshingly pastoral.  Yet, hard-liners see this pastoral tone as pernicious, opening the door to the possibility of change in traditional Church teaching on contraception.  That's quite unlikely; the Pope was commenting specifically on containing the AIDS crisis in Africa, not on the ultimate issue of artificial birth control.

The Pope's dilemma is that he is both the Supreme Pontiff and a pastoral teacher.  One role requires him to pronounce dogma clearly and unambiguously.  The other role requires him to convey a sense of empathy and understanding for the struggles of human life, where moral questions are often complicated and messy. 

Like it or not, it's the Pope's job to state the rules clearly: No sex outside of marriage, and all sex must be for the purpose of procreation.  But even the Pope knows that clear rules are not enough; it's also his job to help his flock figure out how to live each day in the best way possible.  Interpreting Church teachings for daily life is what priests must do all the time.

The world's most prominent religious leader does not make public statements lightly or without careful consideration of their consequences. Like the chairman of the Federal Reserve, whose remarks can make markets rise or fall, the Pope's smallest comment can have massive ramifications not only for Catholics, but for the larger society. 

So when the Pope chose to give the interview, published in the book Light of the World, he made a serious pastoral choice to venture into dicey territory on a number of fronts:  not only condoms, but also Church relations with Islam, the clergy child abuse scandal, and his decision to rescind the excommunication of a bishop who denied the Holocaust. (The interview is fascinating; I urge people to read the whole book, not just the excerpts that caused the controversy.)

Far from offering one-dimensional pieties, the Pope's interview discloses doubt, regret, frustration, faith and pragmatism at a level far beyond the kind of rote recitation of religious dogma that most people expect from the Pope. There's something startling about reading the Pope say, for example, with regard to the Holocaust denier Bishop Williamson, that "...none of us went on the Internet to find out what sort of person we were dealing with."  Heck, what employer hasn't had occasion to rue that very lapse?  Imagining the Pope Googling bishops is a tantalizing thought. 

Daring to reveal some humble human traits can be disturbing or even alarming for people who want their religious leaders to be infallible all the time.  But as the Pope himself said in the interview, even the Pope can have personal opinions, and those opinions are not offered as infallible doctrine, but pastoral guidance for real life.

By giving an interview that allowed him to express nuanced thinking on critical issues, the Pope risked inflaming people who want him to be the Supreme Pontiff at all times.  But those who are already righteous are unlikely to need his guidance quite so much as the millions of other people who are struggling with hard choices.  His more pastoral approach will surely be more successful in reaching the people who actually need moral guidance, those who live in the crucible of life's hard dilemmas each day.


Patricia McGuire

 |  December 16, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  |  Category:  Personal essays Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please report offensive comments below.

Overheard in a Dollar Store:

"I'm not sure I can trust a boy who buys a twelve pack of condoms for 99 cents."

Posted by: areyousaying | December 16, 2010 2:00 PM
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"No sex outside of marriage, and all sex must be for the purpose of procreation.."

...except, of course, between priests and little boys.

Posted by: areyousaying | December 16, 2010 1:57 PM
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Since the Hitler-youth pope refuses to cough up his known pervert priests for civil prosecution, maybe he could at least provided condoms for the rectory.

Posted by: areyousaying | December 16, 2010 1:55 PM
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The pope only said that because his favorite alter boy told him "no glove, no love"

Posted by: overed | December 16, 2010 1:12 PM
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I'm with you.
Global warming and McDonald's fries are the real problems, along with dirt in playgrounds and people not recycling.

Doesn't he know what's important?

Posted by: fishcrow | December 16, 2010 10:18 AM
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Give it up, Ratzinger! Concentrate on things that really hurt other people, like second hand smoke and drunk driving--real issues. Don't make up things that just cause real people a lot of worry.

Posted by: rrbill1 | December 16, 2010 12:29 AM
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