Frankly I don’t even like to discuss condoms. It just seems impolite in mixed company. But the world’s obsession with condoms (as George Weigel quips, “salvation through latex!”) has surely been on display these past weeks. The Pope’s admittedly poorly reported remarks, (even by L’Osservatore Romano) have set forth a tsunami of celebration in some sectors who insist the Church has changed her position. Any presentations of the facts or later clarifications issued by the Vatican seem to have no effect on the spin in secular circles that a “sea-change” has happened in Church teaching. It has not, but myths often take on a life of their own.
In today’s Washington Post yet another article has appeared that I would like to excerpt and then comment on. The Article is by Michael E. Ruane who interviews a number of Catholics outside of St. Matthews Cathedral after Mass on the condom question. The sorts of things said by Catholics in this article are not unexpected. In fact they are emblematic of the fact that most Catholics get their ideas about their faith more form the world than from the Church. This of course is not wholly the fault of the laity since we in the clergy and Church leadership have not been famous for our savvy ability to communicate the faith effectively.
Let’s take a look at this article and see what we can learn of the nature of the problem. As is the case with previous articles, I would like to present the excerpts in bold and italic letters and then my own running commentary in plain RED text. (The Full Post Article can be read here: Faithful Have Mixed Views).
The gray-haired chief usher for the Latin Mass was headed with his metal cane for the steps of Washington’s Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle when he paused to consider the latest church teaching on condom use. “As a Catholic,” said Lucius Robertson, 91, he opposed the use of condoms. “As a John Doe,” he said he approved. “It’s strictly personal,” he added, “a singular decision.” In this opening paragraph we quickly see into the heart of the problem: faith has been privatized. We live in the age of the designer religion wherein anyone gets to invent their own dogma, or selectively determine what dogmas they will accept. Everyone gets to be their own pope. Catholics are often no exception to this trend and many seem perfectly willing and able to dispense with whatever doctrines displease them and still declare themselves to be a “good Catholic.” For such as these faith has no apparent communal dimension, nothing outside them self which should require adherence in order that to qualify for membership. No, such a notion that some one other than me gets to say what is the true faith is obnoxious to many. They insist that faith be a purely private declaration of what seems true “to me.” To suggest that certain criteria ought be met in order to “be Catholic” offends against their God-given right to design their own faith and, I would argue, their own God.
Our 91 year old usher here might not accept all these notions I have stated but his understanding of the faith is surely tainted by them. He insists that an important matter of Church moral teaching is “strictly personal” and “a singular decision.” Never mind that the Church, founded by Jesus Christ, has set forth a clear forbiddance of the use of condoms. Never mind that we as Catholics are expected to give assent and religious submission to what the Church formally teaches and proposes for belief in matters of faith and morals. I am frankly not sure I understand what our usher means when he says he opposes condoms “as a Catholic” and approves them “as a John Doe.” But one thing seems certain, our usher (possibly in an unintentional way) articulates a notion of faith that is personal rather than communal. Many problems come from this widespread current notion which illustrates very well the ego-centric tendency of our modern age. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that faith is not a merely personal or private matter:
“Believing” is an ecclesial act. The Church’s faith precedes, engenders, supports and nourishes our faith. The Church is the mother of all believers. “No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother” (CCC # 181)…..Faith is a personal act – the free response of the human person to the initiative of God who reveals himself. But faith is not an isolated act. No one can believe alone, just as no one can live alone. You have not given yourself faith as you have not given yourself life. The believer has received faith from others and should hand it on to others…..It is the Church that believes first, and so bears, nourishes and sustains my faith…..The Church, “the pillar and bulwark of the truth”, faithfully guards “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints”. She guards the memory of Christ’s words; it is she who from generation to generation hands on the apostles’ confession of faith. As a mother who teaches her children to speak and so to understand and communicate, the Church our Mother teaches us the language of faith in order to introduce us to the understanding and the life of faith. (CCC 168-171 selected)
Thus the Catholic faith cannot be privatized as so many insist on doing. You and I are not free to decide what it means to be a Catholic. That has been given to the Magisterium guided by the Holy Spirit. Just about every other error demonstrated in this article flows from this one misunderstanding of “privatized faith.”
Mixed feelings were common Sunday among Catholics attending Mass at St. Matthew’s at they tried to understand statements last week by Pope Benedict XVI that appeared to ease the church’s long-standing ban on using condoms. (“Appeared,” is the key word. The Pope introduced no change and eased nothing).
In a new book, the pope indicated that condoms could be used to prevent the spread of life-threatening diseases, like HIV. In the past, official church teaching has forbidden condom use under all circumstances, as part of its opposition to birth control. The Pope did nothing of the sort. Here are the actual words of the Pope from the interview that many claim amount to an endorsement of condom use: Peter Seewald: Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms? Pope Benedict: She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution…. Now notice the words “NOT,” “REAL,” and “MORAL.” The Pope notes further in the interview: ….the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of condoms. What the Pope did note was that some people have fallen so far in their understanding that the even the use of a condom may show at least some progress. At least they have some notion of protecting others. But again this only illustrates how far they fallen not that condoms are good. Again for the record the Pope says of condoms that they are not (again, NOT) a moral solution.
Experts have been debating whether the pope’s comments, which the Vatican has sought to clarify, opened the door to discussion of the broader ban, even as many American Catholics have already indicated they disagree with it. Experts are not debating this. Some dissenters may see it in their interest to perpetuate a misunderstanding of the Pope’s remarks. But official Vatican sources have clarified and asserted that there is no change in Church teaching here.
A 2003 Washington Post poll found that 88 percent of Catholics believed that using a “birth control pill or condoms” was morally acceptable. Much of that sentiment was in evidence at St. Matthew’s Sunday. The Poll is probably accurate. However I’d be interested in looking inside the numbers. Are there differences between practing Catholics and non? What are the age differences?
“I don’t think there should be a ban on condoms,” said Kay Gautsch, 68, who was visiting from Racine, Wis. “The pope says use them for AIDS prevention, but I think birth control is very important. The Pope did not say “use them for AIDS prevention.” Ms. Gautsch is simply mistaken. She has likely received all her information on this from the secular media. This is not simply her fault. We who are clergy and, indeed, all Church leaders share in this problem. We have to find more effective ways of reaching our people directly and giving them the true story. Cardinal Wuerl makes this point is the video below.
“On the alternative, you have abortion, you have children [whose] parents can’t afford their kids,” she said. “I think that’s responsible parenthood, to use condoms and limit the size of your family.” “I would hope the ban would change,” she said. “People are using their common sense and . . . responsible health concerns when they use condoms. It’s a good thing.” More privatized religion on display here. She also has a pejorative tone: “People are using their common sense….” when they oppose Church teaching, according to Ms. Gautsch. Of course this thereby means that official and ancient Church teaching against contraceptive methods and emphasizing chastity lacks “common sense.“
Marie Claire Odell, 50, of Silver Spring, who was just leaving church, said the apparent easing of the ban was due. “The Catholic church is not that swift to recognize” the need for change, she said. “They just recognized Galileo. Quite honestly, it takes them a while, but hopefully they’re getting there. “I think it’s about time,” she said. “Let’s be serious. Let’s jump into the 21st century. I think you’ll find a lot of people saying the same thing.” Yes, of course that is the main thing isn’t it? You see, according to Ms Odell and others whom she represents, we have to update, be with the times, this is our main role apparently. Things like Scripture and Tradition have to give way to the “21st Century” which has apparently found a better, more enlightened way.
This position (“the Church must update”) is really a plural version of the problem of privatized religion. This version applies the “right” to redefine the faith to an age more than a person. This privatizes the faith by making it subservient to the whims of a particular time and place. A given generation ought to be free to remove or adapt whatever seems “unacceptable” to that given time or place. In this thinking, being hidebound to ancient Tradition, Conciliar decrees, and Scriptures from ancient times that were far less “enlightened” than ours is really obnoxious. This widespread notion seeks to privatize the faith by eliminating the testimony and presence of previous generations. They have no place at our modern table. This is a private, 21st Century party, don’t you see? And the Ancient Fathers and Evangelists are not invited unless they adapt and update. The main task of the Church for Ms Odell and others like her seems to be that we “jump into the 21st Century.” Again, the faith is privatized, compartmentalized and subjected to the whims of individuals and times and places. It is the problem of privatized religion in another, larger package.
One thing Ms. Odell is right about, “you’ll find a lot of people saying the same thing.” We do indeed have a lot of work to do in making the teaching against artificial contraception sensible to modern westerners. She also speaks for a lot of moderns who see reinventing the Apostolic Faith as their God-given right. A lot of work to do here. Perhaps some more blog posts here can be my contribution, both on contraception and also the problem of privatized religion. (Here’s one I wrote a while back: Wisdom of Humane Vitae)
Well the Post Article goes on with pretty much the same sort of stuff. You can read the rest of it here: Faithful Have Mixed Views. It seems they had trouble finding anyone who supports the Church’s teaching unambiguously. I suspect that is a problem with Post but will also admit it is a problem with us. There are deep problems in the Church today with selective and privatized faith.
Much will be required to get Catholics back to a proper notion that the Faith is revealed by God to the Church and she hands on the faith intact. The faith cannot be of our own making, neither can we pick and choose its content.
But these are egocentric and arrogant times and many people see it as their God-given right to be their own pope, their own Bible, their own magisterium. And, even if they don’t explicitly claim this as a personal right, they assign it to the age or the locale, the “common sense” of the times. It is surely puzzling that an age such as ours, so afflicted by increasing disorder, promiscuity, addiction, crime, violence, abortion, war, injustice to the poor and the breakdown of basic elements like family, can presume to claim for itself some sort of special wisdom and enlightenment. We live in strange times, privatized times, closed off from the wisdom of our elders and forebearers. A faithful remnant remains in the Church, to be sure. It is just disappointing that the Post could not find one to speak unambiguously to the beauty of truth.
The problems illustrated in this Post Article are not entirely a problem of the laity. It is clear that we in the Church have got to do a better job of effectively and efficiently proclaiming the faith and getting that message directly to our people, unfiltered by a secular media. In this three minute video, Cardinal Wuerl, speaking last month at the Order of Malta Conference, describes the challenges and the necessity of telling our people the rest of the story: