Friday, 26 November 2010

The condom debate - it keeps getting more interesting!

This debate keeps on keeping on, and as it does, despite some good attempts to convince me otherwise, on balance I'm actually inclined to think this is a good thing.

Debate within limits can be healthy

Firstly, although a Pope's remarks on such a subject will always be sensitive, by making it clear that he is speaking as a private theologian, he's making an important inroad into the ultramontanism - the inability to distinguish between different levels of authority and insistent on them all being pseudo-infallible - that was used by neo-conservatives to bash traditionalists under Pope John Paul II's regime.

Secondly, and flowing from the above, it is a chance to have debate on a controversial moral issue and set out the limits of what can and can't be debated within the Church. Making people think and talk about an issue can have a positive effect in bringing to mind the Church's teaching, thus confronting the aversion of cafeteria catholics to actually talking about these issues within a proper framework.

How not to manage a debate?

I'm not saying the way its been done is the best way of managing a debate of this kind.

I know the Church is not about PR.  But if you want to advance the Church's mission and get the message out, and have a theological debate, it does make sense to manage the process so that the message doesn't get distorted (too much).

Fr Lombardi apparently tried to dissuade the Pope from doing this interview.  Fair enough.  But that doesn't excuse the failure to do the kind of preparation that would have occurred if this were a policy debate in the secular sphere being promoted by a Prime Minister (well OK perhaps not the current or previous one, but!).

First, the bureaucratic machine would have had contextualising briefing papers all ready.  Papers that would have set out what the Church's Magisterial teaching actually is, what the Pope was and wasn't saying, how it related to his previous comments on condoms in Africa, and what the issues at debate actually were.

Possible questions and answers would have been at the ready, instead of concocted at the last moment and written in a way that actually added to the confusion about what the Pope was and wasn't saying.

The machine would have warned the bishops of what was coming, and made sure they had briefing material in their hands before anything went public. 

There would have been pre-briefing of sympathetic theologians in a position to explain what the Pope meant, as well as warming up of the major bloggers and important potential catholic critics so that they didn't get distracted by side-issues (such as L'Osservatore Romano's role in the whole thing, mistranslations etc).

So I do think critics of the Vatican bureaucracy are on the right track. 

The substance of the debate
All the same, and far more importantly, I'm beginning to understand where the Pope is actually coming from on this issue, thanks to an insightful piece by Fr Finigan (previously mentioned) and now a contribution from Sandro Magister.  That's not to say I'm entirely convinced.  But I think it is an important and interesting debate to get out in the open.

Magister reproduces quotes from a 2004 article by Fr. Martin Rhonheimer, from Switzerland, professor of ethics and political philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, the Roman university of Opus Dei.  The Professor basically makes the following points:
  • condoms per se are not the issue, contraception is - there is no sin inherent in using a condom if there is no possibility of conception (though of course there may well be a sin inherent in the sexual act itself!);
  • condoms used in marriage to prevent infecting a partner may in some circumstances be permissible under the doctrine of double effect (ie the contraceptive effect is an unintended consequence).
Magister makes the point that whatever your view on these arguments, the Pope's previous comments about the ineffectiveness of condoms to prevent AIDS in Africa remain true for a variety of reasons, including the failure rate of condoms, and more particularly cultural factors: abstinence is the answer!

Go over and read Magister at Chiesa on the subject...

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