The ticker on the bottom of the news broadcast caught my eye: "...seismic shift in Catholic Church teaching...."
Were Pope Benedict's words regarding condom use published in Ignatius Press' "Light of the World" a seismic shift in Church teaching? Or does the fact that many perceive it to be a seismic shift betray that many people--in the secular media as well as normal Church-going Catholics--don׳t have a properly nuanced understanding of the Church's teaching? I think it's the latter.
Here's why. Many think that the Church's teaching on contraception or artifical birth control can be summed up this way: "The use of artificial contraception is evil, always. Don't do it, ever."
But this isn't what the Catholic Church teaches, either in Humanae Vitae or in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Holy Father is revealing that many people don't understand the teaching. Before these brass tacks, here is a telling story, somewhat self-incriminating.
I was sitting in a seminary classroom in a moral theology class several years ago. The professor--a faithful, orthodox, and good priest and theologian--asked us, his class of eager and zealous seminarians, this hypothetical:
A band of violent guerrilla soldiers attack a small village in Africa. It is very likely that they will attack and perhaps rape members of a women's religious order, young nuns in their 20's, and 30's. Assuming that the nuns cannot escape this terrible situation, is it morally permissible for the nuns to take the "pill" or to demand that their attackers wear condoms, in order to prevent conception?
By a show of hands, almost the entire class said that the nuns would not be morally permitted to do this. We thought we were boldly and bravely supporting the Church's teaching.
The professor was totally shocked. Almost speechless. I was shocked that he was shocked. Either the entire class was wrong, or he, a professor with a pontifical doctorate, was wrong.
Stumbling to find words, he asked some students to defend their view, and the answer came back: "Artifical birth control is always intrinisically evil. The unitive and procreative elements of sex can never be separated. Sexual intercourse must always be open to life."
Then he said something that shocked us in its simplicity and its power to illuminate this issue: "Gentlemen, the Catholic Church teaches that intentional sterilization is always intrinsically evil when performed before, during, or after the conjugal act."
He pointed out the obvious fact that Humanae Vitae addresses the regulation of births within marriage. The Church's concern is to protect the dignity of the conjugal act, which is the marital act between a husband and a wife. The Church has no interest, from a moral or spiritual perspective, of protecting the "dignity" of other forms of sexual intercourse, whether fornication, homosexual acts, rape, incest, prostitution, etc. For illustration, look up "contraception" in the Catechism's index and it reads: "see Marriage: purpose of". When the Church considers the moral issue of contraception, she does so within the context of marriage.
Back to my seminary classroom-full of shocked theologians. In our zeal to protect the Church's black and white teaching on contraception with respect to the marital act, we had actually distorted it by hastily misapplying it to de-humanizing forms of sexual expression.
Many have pointed out that the Pope was, in "Light of the World," speaking about the hypothetical case of a male prostitute, so that the Church's teaching on contraception would still univocally apply to any heterosexual sexual encounter. While there is a distinction between the depravities of these homosexual "relations" and heterosexual intercourse, this is not the fundamental issue here.
For example, some translations of the Pope's words refer to the hypothetical prostitute as "he" and some as "she". Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi reported, "I asked the Holy Father if there was a serious distinction in the choice of male instead of female, and he said, 'No.'"
The key distinction, then, is not the between homosexual and heterosexual sex; it is between marital and non-marital sex. Why? Because the Church never separates the unitive and procreative elements of the conjugal/marital act. The unitive component demands marriage; the procreative component demands marriage. Sexual intercourse is too intimately linked to love and life for it to be employed anywhere except the humanizing structure of marriage.
If you lose one dimension (the procreative or the unitive), you've already lost the other, and you no longer are dealing with the conjugal act. A prostitute, a rapist, and even--brace yourself--a cohabitating and fornicating engaged couple are all incapable of the conjugal act because they are not married. In these we're dealing with sexual encounters of varying degrees of brokenness and disorder. Into these situations, the Church--embodied by the Pope's recent beautiful fatherly comments--speaks words of compassion and, at least as importantly, conversion.
By the way, this "narrow" application of the Church's prohibition of contraception within marriage does not, on my reading, necessarily promote or prohibit any kind of sexual morality for non-marital sex acts. In other words, the Church isn't all that interested in how people can best fornicate, or how they can employ prostitutes with the least amount of damage. Jesus didn't argue with the Pharisees about details regarding the disorder of divorce, and the Church doesn't legislate details over sex that takes place outside of marriage, either. She calls us to conversion.
For the record, did the Pope say that condom use outside the marital act is morally justifiable, to prevent AIDS, for example? No, he didn't. (He said it may be a "first step in the direction of a moralization" but not a "moral solution.")
Did the Pope say that condom use is a good, practical solution to spreading STDs and unwanted pregnancies? No, he didn't. Not even close. Look carefully at his words in the new book. Dr Janet Smith has a good piece on it at: www.catholic.org/national/national_story.php?id=39277
Unlike my moral theology professor from years back, I doubt that the Holy Father is shocked at the prevading ignorance on this issue, whether within the ranks of the secular media or well-intentioned Catholics. He's way too smart far that.
If this little flare-up of press gets people to crack open their Catechisms or to read Humanae Vitae in order to investigate this issue for themselves, perhaps many will come to understand the clear, beautiful, humanizing, and unchanging teaching of the Catholic Church which forbids the intentional sterilization of the conjugal act.
That would be a seismic shift indeed.