Tuesday, November 23, 2010

What B16 said (or didn’t say)

Media outlets have been abuzz that Pope Benedict has revised the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception by allowing it certain, extreme cases.

A closer look at the interview reveals he has done no such thing:

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.

The first part of his answer makes clear that he still sees the act as objectively disordered. His point is that while two acts might both be intrinsically evil, they are not equally so. If an agent decided to commit the lesser evil, then this would be a step in the right direction; nevertheless, it is still immoral.

Janet Smith’s bank heist analogy illustrates this point well:

If someone was going to rob a bank and was determined to use a gun, it would better for that person to use a gun that had no bullets in it. It would reduce the likelihood of fatal injuries. But it is not the task of the Church to instruct potential bank robbers how to rob banks more safely and certainly not the task of the Church to support programs of providing potential bank robbers with guns that could not use bullets. Nonetheless, the intent of a bank robber to rob a bank in a way that is safer for the employees and customers of the bank may indicate an element of moral responsibility that could be a step towards eventual understanding of the immorality of bank robbing.

Leo Strauss criticized Thomas Aquinas (and by logical extension, the Catholic Church) for supporting fixed moral principles. He believed such norms were too rigid and impractical for the messy, complicated world of human affairs. Pope Benedict's nuanced comments on contraception show an awareness of the need for principles which are BOTH fixed and flexible.

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