Let’s get this straight: Roman Catholic priests in Africa — some married with children, in blunt violation of church teaching — can further offend the doctrine of their faith by recommending condom use, and the story barely reaches our shores.
But let the pope rely on actual Catholic doctrine in a statement about condom use in Africa, and you’d think an atom bomb had detonated over Cameroon.
That’s where the papal plane was headed last week when Pope Benedict XVI reminded reporters, and thus the world, of what his church actually teaches. The cries of the offended and inconvenienced echoed still.
I am not Catholic and do not share the church’s belief that contraception is wrong in all cases, even for married couples who wish no further children. The pope’s comments were against the use of condoms to stem the spread of AIDS, a tough message to bring to a continent that had three-quarters of the world’s AIDS deaths in 2007 and where some 22 million people are infected with HIV.
This was unnerving to those who believe church doctrine should bend to situational ethics, including many actual Catholics, even clergy.
But it is not the church’s job to suspend its fundamental rules to fit current events. Its job is to teach what it believes and expect followers to follow. That’s called moral leadership.
Such leadership depends on a strong and sensible foundation. A faith driven by hate or malice loses the basis from which to expect followers. So the pope had better have a good reason for telling an AIDS-racked continent (20 percent Catholic and increasing) not to use something that would definitely reduce the incidence of AIDS.
He does. The Catholic view is that contraception interferes with the God-given procreation process. Period. No health crisis changes that.
But the pope is not blind to the tragedy of AIDS and calls on Africa and the world to combat it with methods that are more effective and do not facilitate sin: fidelity and abstinence.
This struck critics as “impractical.” Well, practicality is not the church’s job. Its job is to embody an ideal for followers to emulate.
What a paper-thin sham Catholicism would be if the pope were to cave and conclude: “You know those centuries we’ve spent teaching against anything that obstructs the sacred method by which life is created? Well, we’ve thought about it, and because millions are engaging in behavior that spreads a fatal disease, we’ve decided to shelve that basic belief and instruct people to do something we’ve considered a moral abomination pretty well forever.”
Anyone repelled by a pope who refuses to buckle this way should remember that no one is forced to be Catholic. If this bar is too high, there’s the door. But if Catholicism has withstood anything, it’s expectations that doctrine should bend to public will.
The priesthood is exclusively male because the image of God is fatherly. Those who mistake that for misogyny demand change.
The priesthood is celibate so priests may focus on their flocks, unfettered by daily concerns of a nuclear family. Those who find that odd demand change.
Contraception is forbidden because it impedes a sacred process. Most opposition comes from people who find that just too hard to abide. Too bad.
It wouldn’t be a rule in a church I started, but when I start one, I’ll make the rules. The Vatican hierarchy makes the rules for Catholics, who may follow them or find a less demanding faith. Even if driven by a noble but ultimately unrelated urge – fighting a dreaded disease – the basics do not change.
In a world where morality shifts with the seasons and almost any absolute is corruptible by public whim, constant aspiration to a worthy standard should be valued, not mocked.
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