Pope Benedict XVI's comments in his new book Light of the World have tumbled some strange dominoes that allow us to see clearly the nervous fretting of American bishops, the moral maturity of American Catholics and the curious thinking of an elderly pope who is willing to lift his absolute condom ban in consideration of male prostitutes who, by using them, are expressing some moral concern for their clients or perhaps for themselves.
(Would that the pope practiced, on behalf of an African continent being killed by AIDS, the same "moral triage" that Jesus practiced when confronted by the woman caught in adultery. The first thing Jesus did was to intervene to stop her from being stoned to death. Only after he had gotten rid of the menacing crowd did he talk to her about morality. If Jesus were our pope, he'd have been in Africa handing out condoms for the last few years rather than enthroned in Rome and pontificating about how everyone except his staff should have sex.)
[Tuesday 11PM EST Update: In an amazing flip-flop, the Pope has issued a statement that opens the door to condom use by not only male prostitutes, but by"men, women or transsexuals". It will take time to review this (It seems that the Italian edition of his new book used the feminine version of "prostitute", requiring this clarification through B16's overworked spokesman), but conservative Catholic theologians are already saying B16 is plain wrong! This news illustrates what I say in the rest of this post.]
Professional fans of Benedict are trying to walk back his comments by assuring American Catholics that the laws of morality cannot be changed by bishops or popes. Archbishop Tim Dolan of New York makes this assertion in yesterday's New York Times.
To be clear, the pope opens the door to condom use only where there is no possibility of their disrupting procreation. Following his logic, I too should be encouraged to use a condom while having gay sex even though I do it in a non-profit way.
On Sunday evening, at the invitation of Father John McNeill, I spoke in a Florida church about the battle for the soul of American Catholicism. I have summarized those words in an open letter to Archbishop Dolan.
Dear Archbishop Timothy,
About this subject, The New York Times quotes you:
"You get the impression that the Holy See or the pope is like Congress and every once in a while says, 'Oh, let's change this law,' " he said. "We can't."
You will have a tough time selling American Catholics the idea that some key elements of sexual morality such as condom use are beyond change and are not just policies that can be adjusted. Consider our experience:
a) Many of us remember the days when eating meat on Friday could quite literally send you to hell should that dooming hamburger be followed by death without an intervening good confession. And then, one fine morning, we are all told that it's OK to eat meat on most fridays and that not only would it not send you to hell, but that it is not even a venial sin. The lesson we learned between the lines was that men in miters can make and change some pretty darn serious laws - laws crucial enough to forfeit our souls for eternity.
b) American Catholic women despaired over the prohibition against artificial birth control in the form of "the pill". They brought their anguish into the privacy of the confessional where the overwhelming majority of American priests counseled them to pray over it and then make their own decision once they have done the personal and private work to form and inform their consciences. The lesson those women learned - and shared with their children and spouses - was that absolute proclamations from bishops and popes are really only guidelines and encouragements in a Godly direction.
c) The pedophile priest scandal had a similar effect in the hearts of many who were shocked and surprised by it (myself included). It lifted a veil of secrecy that allowed a harsh light on the huge gulf between what priests and bishops preached and what they really did.
d) The Pope's recent "modification" of the absolute prohibition of condoms will be received by most American Catholics as confirmation of what they learned between the lines in a), b), and c) above.
Please know that I am not simply saying that American Catholics are cynical. I am saying that they are well trained by the clergy to make personal moral decisions that are not slavish to absolutes that are not really absolutes. Ask your parishioners about this. I recently gave a talk at a church in Florida and delivered this list to a crowd that indicated their strong agreement with how the mind of the American Catholic has evolved by dint of the hierarchy's own leadership.
The bishops' dismay about American Catholic moral attitudes is really a grimace at the taste of the wine made from grapes they have grown.