Why is it that every time I see L'Osservatore Romano being quoted in the news, it always seems to be something palm-facingly embarrassing? I doubt the editor-in-chief of the Vatican's newspaper is an anti-Catholic in disguise, but with such displays of incompetency, maybe he needs to be replaced just to be sure. At any rate, its latest misadventure involves an excerpt taken by the Osservatore from a new book about Pope Benedict XVI that mainstream news sources around the world are now interpreting as an endorsement of condom-use:
Therebe a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where 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.
My first reaction was, "How the hell could this be seen as pro-condoms?!" But then I remembered what we are dealing with here. Understandably, people who already have a low view of the Church could not be expected to analyze something further (in the sense of trying to understand what it is really saying and viewing it in context) when at a mindless glance one could catch something so temptingly sensational as "Pope endorses condoms!!!"
The last two sentences of the excerpt show quite clearly that Pope Benedict was not being pro-condoms at all, but what is he really saying? Why give an example about the Responsible Prostitute at all if condoms are intrinsically evil...period? Should we not be condemning all prostitutes, even if they try to do good while performing their evil profession? Well, the thing is, Catholic ethics if far from the merciless be-perfect-or-we'll-hate-you type that some people (including some Catholics) think it is. We are taught by the Church to love everyone as our brothers and to fervently hope for their salvation. And hope is exactly what the pope is expressing here. A male HIV-positive prostitute using a condom to prevent his customers from infection is a man doing a certain kind of evil on one hand yet conscientiously attempting to avoid another kind of evil on the other hand. What the pope is saying is that such a man is far closer to Christian holiness than someone who has no qualms about doing any kind of evil at all and happily spreads his infection everywhere. Thus, we have hope that this "less immoral" prostitute, if he continued on this trend towards trying to choose goodness, would one day realize the evil of the occupation that has made condoms seem necessary to him, and finally reconcile with God.
I'd like to use the analogy used by Dr. Janet Smith to clarify this issue. Here's a hypothetical scenario: If you are planning to rob a bank, you need to make sure that the people in the bank won't do anything that could thwart your robbery attempt or otherwise put you in danger. The common solution is to scare them with a gun, which you already possess. But it just so happens that you are the kind of bank robber who abhors the idea of killing people (let us call you the Responsible Robber). You are aware that guns are known to discharge by accident, and so to keep things safe, you remove the bullets from the gun, hoping to deceive the people in the bank into doing whatever you ask them to. Sure, deceiving people is still bad, but that's nothing compared to outright homicide, right? Therefore, using a non-loaded gun (as opposed to a loaded one) is the moral way of robbing people, right?
The problem with that last question is that it misses one very important point: robbing other people is in itself immoral. Whatever else you do while robbing someone does not change the fact that you robbed him. You certainly shouldn't expect to be forgiven just because you used a gun with no bullets. On the other hand, the fact that you made a moral choice of not killing anyone gives your Christian neighbors hope that you may one day make another moral choice: to give up on robbery. When that day happens, you will also realize that using a gun to scare other people, whether or not it has bullets, is also immoral. Likewise, a person who realizes that fornication is evil (as the pope says, it dehumanizes sexuality) will also realize the evil of contraception, even if contraceptives were an aspect of the "less immoral" choices he made as a fornicator. At least, that is our hope.
It is the malicious twisting of the pope's inspiring expression of Christian hope and charity into something sensationally heretical that really, really angers me about the current "controversy" invented by these so-called journalists. It is during these times that I am sorely tempted to see these people, not as fellow human beings, but as monsters that need destroying. But of course, if I fell for such temptations, I would be disobeying the very same Church doctrine that the pope is trying to teach here.
Yes, it really is tough for regular sinners like me (not just sinners with sensational sins like heresy or sexual deviation) to follow the Church's teachings. This is probably why G.K. Chesterton said "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried."
Update: Mark Shea has his own analogy that, in true Shea form, is over-the-top and quite amusing. The Force is strong on that one!