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The Pope as Conversationalist

No, the Pope did not “change Church teaching” respecting the intrinsic immorality of contraception.

But the latest media firestorm surrounding Benedict XVI does demonstrate the real problem:

a “dialogue with the world” that reduces the Pope to a conversationalist instead of the Vicar of Christ.

Christopher A. Ferrara POSTED: Sunday November 29, 2010

Pope Chats with Peter Seewald


( Numerous Catholic commentators, including Father Joseph Fessio and Philip Lawler, have rushed to demonstrate that the “explosive” passage concerning condoms from Light of the World, the Pope’s book-interview with Peter Seewald, does not represent a change in Church teaching on the intrinsic immorality of contraception.  Of course they are correct.  Here is what the Pope said on the matter in response to Seewald’s questions (in bold):

Critics, including critics from the Church’s own ranks, object that it is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms.

…. There may be 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. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.


Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?

She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.

Clearly on the defensive, the Pope affirmed, but in a hazardously ambiguous way, that the Church cannot view condom use as moral even when it might represent in certain cases an attempt to diminish the evil consequences of sexual activity outside of marriage—i.e., the spread of disease.

The Pope’s remarks comport with the principle of Catholic moral theology that while it is possible to mitigate the evil consequences of an intrinsically evil act, and thereby diminish subjective culpability, the mitigating action does not on that account become moral. By analogy, a bank robber who is always careful to fire his gun into the ceiling when intimidating his victims is undeniably less culpable than one who simply shoots them, but this does mean that firing a gun into the ceiling during a bank robbery is morally justified. Likewise, no one is ever morally justified in using a condom.   

Thus The New York Times, for example, was simply inventing things when it declared that “Halting Disease Can Outweigh Ban on Condoms, Pope Signals.” The Pope suggested no such ethical balancing test, which would involve an immoral utilitarian or consequentialist ethic.  Equally fanciful was the opinion of a liberal Jesuit quoted by the Times, who exulted: “We’re in a new world… [Y]ou cannot anymore raise the objection that any use of the condom is an intrinsic evil.” And so on throughout the worldwide empire of the mass media, whose scribes and demagogues live in the fervent hope that one day the only Church that can be taken seriously will defect from her unwavering moral teaching, the very mark of her divine founding, and thus reveal herself to be only human after all.  Aha!

But the problem here isn’t simply that the Pope’s remarks were misconstrued. The crux of the problem, in my opinion, is that the Pope knowingly, and quite needlessly, placed himself in a situation where he might well utter remarks capable of being misconstrued, as these were.  At age 83, the Pope imprudently submitted to the journalistic equivalent of a pretrial deposition: 210 pages of interrogation by a journalist in hot pursuit of the scoop of a lifetime. As Philip Lawler writes: “the notion that a reigning Pontiff would submit to a book-length interview is a sensation in itself.” A sensation indeed, but in the worst possible sense of the word.

As Lawler observes: “… Seewald does his job well. He respectfully but persistently pressed the Pope to explain his thinking on a host of issues, many of them controversial.” [emphasis mine] Since when does the Vicar of Christ submit to the indignity of being grilled by a layman who “presses” him to “explain his thinking” for the world’s evaluation? Since Vatican II and its catastrophically imprudent “opening to the world” for the sake of “dialogue with the world.”   

Lawler stresses that “Here the Pope was making a theoretical point, not a practical one. He was not teaching, but explaining a point. He was not speaking with authority—in fact, earlier in the book he had explained why nothing the Pope says in an interview should be regarded as authoritative—but speculating.” [emphasis mine]   Precisely.  But is it not obvious that the Vicar of Christ should not speak at all on moral issues unless he is ready to speak in his capacity as teacher and shepherd of the universal Church?  As the media firestorm demonstrates, it was nothing short of folly for the Pope to provide a journalist with more than 200 pages of freewheeling remarks, many concerning the most sensitive theological and moral subjects, with a disclaimer that none of it represents Church teaching, but only the Pope sharing his personal opinions with an interviewer. The Pope’s “Oprah moment” was worse than useless to the Church; it did great harm, as even Lawler admits.

Lawler implicitly concedes that the interview was folly when he remarks: “In the context of a lengthy conversation, with a sympathetic interviewer, it is easy to see how the Pope might have been tempted toward speculative remarks.”  Why in heaven’s name did the Vicar of Christ willingly expose himself to the occasion of this temptation?  Even in placing the blame on the Pope’s collaborators, where much of it belongs, Lawler cannot help but blame the Pope as well.  He writes:

But in the weeks between the time of the interview and the date of publication, did no one at the Vatican recognize the likelihood that the Pope’s words would be yanked out of context? Did any authoritative Vatican official vet the text of the interview, to ensure that the Pope’s answers to Seewald were not subject to confusion and/or misinterpretation? If not, then this pontificate is now suffering from another self-inflicted wound. [emphasis mine]

Self-inflicted indeed! Why did the Pope himself not recognize that his remarks were likely to be taken out of context?  Why did he not vet his own text to make sure it was not subject to confusion or misinterpretation?  And who is primarily to blame for publication of the text if not its very author? 

Lawler continues: “Surely any capable journalist would have recognized the potential for trouble, immediately upon reading the Pope’s words. Anyone alert to the rhythms of everyday public debate would have been able to warn the Pontiff that his subtle distinctions about the morality of condom use would be lost upon the secular media.”  Quite true. But why did the Pope himself not recognize the potential for trouble in his own words?

Consider the insolently worded query by which Seewald elicited the Pope’s defensive reply on the condom issue: “Critics, including critics from the Church’s own ranks, object that it is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms.” The obvious implication is that the Pope himself stands accused of madness, even by his own subjects, for it was none other than His Holiness who said during his plane trip to Africa last year (in response to another query from a journalist) that AIDS is “a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems.”  In fact, the entire preceding controversy over Catholic teaching against the use of condoms to “prevent” the spread of AIDS had originated with the Pope’s own rightful defense of Church teaching en route to Africa. It was this defense that Seewald “pressed” the Pope to “explain.”

The outcome of the Pope placing himself in this compromising situation was entirely predictable—by the Pope, not just by his collaborators. First of all, His Holiness is certainly aware that distortion and falsification are only to be expected from the wolves in the media. But Benedict should also have anticipated distortion and falsification from certain members of his own Vatican apparatus, who have demonstrated abundantly that they are unreliable or incompetent at best and outright traitors at worst.  

Thus it was no surprise that the now positively seditious L’Osservatore Romano, which ought to be renamed Il Traditore Romano, not only violated a strict pre-publication embargo on the book, obeyed scrupulously even by secular journalists, but also cunningly published an excerpt containing only the Pope’s remarks on the condom issue, providing to boot a defective Italian translation of the original German text that deleted the word “male” from the phrase “male prostitute” so as to suggest a broader application of the Pope’s hypothetical example.  This was blatant sabotage.

Then, at the press conference to introduce the book, “papal spokesman” Federico Lombardi “clarified” the matter by admitting that the Italian translation was indeed defective, but adding that he had asked the Pope whether it mattered much and that “He told me ‘no’….” Lombardi supplied  his own gloss that condom use is “the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship … This is if you’re a woman, a man, or a transsexual.”  For the Church-hating media this only provided “confirmation” that the Pope thinks everyone, including transsexual freaks, is morally justified in using condoms to “prevent” the spread of disease. 

Completing this entirely foreseeable debacle was the prelate who was allowed to introduce Light of the World at the press conference: none other than the ludicrously unfit president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, who infamously declared on the pages of ll Traditore, early in 2009, that the doctors involved in aborting twins carried by a nine-year-old Brazilian girl did not deserve excommunication but rather approbation, because they “allowed you [the girl] to live and have helped you to regain hope and trust.” With the support of the ultraliberal Vatican cardinal, Battista Re, a close friend and collaborator of the execrable Cardinal Martini, Fisichella openly criticized the Archbishop of Recife, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, for having publicly denounced the abortions and declared the excommunication of the doctors, who were already excommunicated latae sententiae under canon law. Neither Fisichella nor Il Traditore has ever retracted this iniquitous condonation of abortion in “the Pope’s newspaper.”

Lawler praises Light of the World as a whole because in it “the Holy Father offers a number of fascinating revelations, along with an enormous amount of profound theological reflection. The book is, again, sensational.” I respectfully and strongly disagree.  Surely what happened here shows why the Vicar of Christ is not at liberty to indulge in “sensational” and “fascinating revelations,” or “profound theological reflection” devoid of all authority, under “persistent” questioning by a journalist who “presses” him for answers and “tempts” him into speculation. The very process involved peril for the Church and thus the world.

That peril is evident at this very moment, when innumerable Catholics have no doubt taken the Pope’s words, spun by the media and “clarified” by his incompetent “spokesman,” as a green light for “safe sex,” the Pope’s nuances having immediately been lost to the wind, as he should have foreseen they would be. And now, in what is just a beginning, it is reported from the Philippines that “Malacañang [the Philippine equivalent of the White House] yesterday said Benedict XVI’s statement could ‘absolutely’ boost support for the RH [reproductive health] bill which seeks to control the country’s population by promoting the use of contraceptives.” That is hardly what the Pope intended, but the exercise of submitting to a journalistic interview touching on matters of faith and morals guaranteed the potential for unintended consequences. And who knows how far those consequences will extend?

Something else must be noted in all candor: It is a scandal for the very Vicar of Christ to discuss casually with a layman, for publication to the world, such matters as condoms and male prostitutes. It is inconceivable that any Pope before Vatican II, or even John XXIII or Paul VI, for that matter, would have descended to such details.  The utter degradation of discourse that characterizes the “modern world” now touches even the Roman Pontiff, despite his own evident piety, modesty and sobriety.

Like all the other novelties spawned by the Council, the “opening to the world” and “dialogue with the world” are a monumental failure, as this affair demonstrates.  The more the Pope deigns to treat with the world in worldly terms and in worldly forums, the more his authority erodes and the wider his flock scatters.  The more he tries to “explain his thinking,” as Lawler puts it, the less the world accepts his explanations.

The subtitle of Light of The World says it all: “The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times: A Conversation with Peter Seewald.” The Pope consents to become a conversationalist on moral and theological issues, deliberately disclaiming any intention to speak by the authority Christ gave him, without which the Pope’s words are but the opinions of a man. Just as they have uncrowned Him, so they have uncrowned His Vicar.  Or rather, the Pope uncrowns himself, with disastrous results.

Pray for the Pope, for the restoration of his crown, and for his return to the throne that belongs to Christ’s Vicar. The crisis in the Church continues, while the wolves Benedict feared at the outset of his pontificate circle ever closer, excited by the scent of a kill.

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