Thinking about not thinking about the Pope, the press and condoms

Peter Seewald

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I had a great day yesterday not writing about the Pope and condoms.

After a Solemn High Mass at Holy Innocents in Manhattan, with music of De Victoria and the presence of a group of college students, I dashed up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and saw an exhibit of views of Italy including many things that dove-tailed with the Canaletto exhibit I saw in London.  Then I walked across Central Park and saw a huge gray and white raptor on a horizontal branch about 20 feet off the ground eating the gut out of a squirrel.  It sure looked like an Osprey to me, but I think they usually eat fish.  The kids watching were great: EEEEWWWW, when it would pull up some juicy intestines.  One guy explained to junior that animals don’t get food in styrofoam packages.    Then waiting at a corner I saw a car whip around corner into the back of a cab thus propelling it in turn into the back of an SUV.  Once again I heard the EEEEWWWW, from the people around.   Then a movie. Then Chinese.  The last part of the New Jersey Giants v. Iggles game.  Not bad.

In the meantime, I did not write about the Pope and condoms for even one second of the day!

I found a comment on CMR, however, which expresses in far less testy terms than I would use, something of my thoughts on the matter of the Pope and the Press.   My emphases:

I must admit that the whole thing has me scratching my head. The question I keep coming back to is “why?” Why did the Pope try to make this VERY nuanced point when it is obvious to even the most casual observer that the media would get this wrong? Did this nuanced point about male prostitutes really have to be made? I mean, have male prostitutes sworn off condoms because the Pope says they are wrong? Why? Why this point?

I cannot help but wonder if the Pope’s inner egg-head got the better of him here. In a way, I feel like the Pope wandered into the woods on the first day of hunting season while trying to make a point detailing the different kinds of rods and cones involved in color-blindness. It is just not the time or place to be making this point.

And then the Holy See press office. Somebody over there coulda shoulda known what was contained in this interview and anticipated the blowup.  [Oh boy... this is why it is best for me to use someone elses words.] The whole reason you have a press office is so that you can be ahead of these kind of stories rather than being reactive. Extending my lame hunting analogy, it seems that the press office tells all of the color blind hunters “Hey, I think I saw something move over there!” And then claims “How was I supposed to know?”

Doesn’t anybody over at the Vatican, from the Pope on down, know how this works?

Listen up!!! The press doesn’t do nuance!

I would like to be able to apply the Sherlock Holmes theory to this.  Once you eliminate the possibly answers, the impossible is the answer.

It is impossible to imagine that an organization with global impact and footprint doesn’t know how to hire someone to coordinate the Roman Curia’s official press presentations and responses.

It is impossible to imagine that in setting up that book-interview, the Holy See didn’t retain the right to strike elements that would be inopportune.

It is impossible to imagine that the Pope and his advisers don’t know what the press does with raw meat.

I wonder if the Holy Father goes forward with controversial statements knowing that they are going to create a furor precisely because he knows that there will be a public discussion to follow.

On the way to get the Chinese food last tonight, we were talking about how the sharp repression of Modernism in the early 20th century lead the its resurgence later.   We discussed what might have happened had modernism been engaged and refuted rather than simply repressed.

We say we want a voice in the public square.  That isn’t going to be easy.  Our responses aren’t going to look like clean white packages with plastic wrap.

Is this a technique of the “new evangelization”?

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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24 Responses to Thinking about not thinking about the Pope, the press and condoms

  1. Mashenka says:

    Father, sounds like you had a fine day! I hope your bird was an osprey, but I think it must have been a hawk… hawks know they are safer in cities! We have one here, and he’s become tame–a “pet:” of some nearby college students who buy him burgers and put them down at the base of the trunk of his favourite tree, whenever they see him perching there.

    As for the rest of your thoughts, I say Amen and Bravo! If nothing else, the whole discussion has been a great way to “take the public’s pulse”, hasn’t it? and perhaps it will inspire some people to see the challenge in it all: people may, God being our helper, begin to think about, and pray for the gifts and graces of (speaking in a whisper) chastity and fidelity! Wouldn’t that be a grand outcome of all the discussion!

  2. Phil says:

    “I wonder if the Holy Father goes forward with controversial statements knowing that they are going to create a furor precisely because he knows that there will be a public discussion to follow.”

    I am of the opinion that he does.

  3. Margo says:

    Father Z, I love New York this time of year. I used to enjoy watching the faces of the people in the park as they take in the little bits of nature and look as though they’ve seen it all for the first time. The squirrels are so ignored here in the country but New Yorkers seem to have an almost childlike fascination of them, treating them as wild pets. I absolutely loved your colorful description of your day..

    On another note, I enjoyed reading this: “I wonder if the Holy Father goes forward with controversial statements knowing that they are going to create a furor precisely because he knows that there will be a public discussion to follow.” If that is the case (that the Pope is making these types of statements in order to create public discussions), then good! I hope he continues. It sure seems to be working. Thank you for sharing this piece.

  4. Clinton says:

    And in that public discussion that follows one is able to discern those parties, both within and
    outside the Church, that are trying to advance an honest conversation–and those that are not.

    The Pope could have spared himself a great deal of hassle by not raising this issue. However, I
    get the impression that he does not believe it is his job to make his own life easier.

    I’ve got to say I have a lot of questions about the Holy Father’s remarks, and I look forward to
    some clarifications being made. I’m sure the Pope isn’t scared to revisit that hornet’s nest.
    In fact, I don’t think there’s much in this world that man is afraid of.

  5. Choirmaster says:

    Hmm… Fr. Z, I believe the oft-repeated phrase of Sherlock Holmes runs more like this:

    “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

  6. Salaam says:

    Agreed wholeheartedly.

    It is time to engage. We should not hide any more, so to speak, out of fear of being misunderstood or mischaracterized.

    Yes, to engage, one has to speak freely and openly, and of course there will be room for misinterpretation and nitpicking, but so be it. The benefits far, far outweigh the costs.

    A good example in this regard is Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church of America, whose tendency so speak freely and frankly without much worry is refreshing. Once, he called the phenomena of shunting seniors into old age homes ‘evil’. In the context of what he was saying, we know what he meant. He was right. And it was pastorally useful for him to say that. But one can imagine the furore that would result if he were more famous, or if the Pope said this.

    Yes, it is time I think for the Pope to set the agenda rather than react.

  7. Jason Keener says:

    Father Z,

    Would love to see some pictures of your favorite art from the Met. Who are your favorite artists? Maybe you could do some more entries analyzing pieces of great artwork, as I think you did once or twice in the past, if I remember correctly.

  8. “It is impossible to imagine that an organization with global impact and footprint doesn’t know how to hire someone to coordinate the Roman Curia’s official press presentations and responses.”

    I’d be happy to do it. I don’t speak Italian, but I could hardly do a worse job than all the Italian speakers there.

  9. Jason: If you wish.

    Here is a beautiful pair of carved figures.

    This pair of statuettes represents the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth.  

    They date from the early 14th century and come from Switzerland.  They are carved walnut and have very well-preseved paint and gulding. 

    In this representation, you will note the odd rock crystal cabochons. 

    These crystals were intended to allow the one who prayed before them to see the babies in the wombs of Mary and Elizabeth. 

    Medieval ultrasound.

    Elizabeth’s gesture is graceful and significant.  As Mary rests her hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder in a sign of greeting, Elizabeth places her hand to her breast in the moment of saying "Who am I that the mother of the Lord should come to me."

     

  10. momoften says:

    The Holy Father had to have know he would be taken out of text…I think if it was a mistake,(which I doubt) the Vatican would have ALREADY released a clarification. I have seen it reported in our wretched local paper and it was poorly done from AP news. This hopefully is a tool to bring about fruitful discussion, but why now? It is just weird, and at this moment disappointing. A little early yet, but where are the bishops in their explanations of this latest release? Again, it just strikes me as very weird…

  11. Lurker 59 says:

    @Fr. Z.

    “I wonder if the Holy Father goes forward with controversial statements knowing that they are going to create a furor precisely because he knows that there will be a public discussion to follow. …… We discussed what might have happened had modernism been engaged and refuted rather than simply repressed……Is this a technique of the “new evangelization”?

    Possibly. Sometimes when I argue with people I will intentionally put holes in my argument or not cover something that will direct my interlocular in a direction that I want them to consider. It allows control of the conversation, makes the other person think, and hopefully you can get them to see the reasonableness of your position without immediately saying “the catechism says XYZ end of story you are wrong”. B16 is in an extra tricky position because anything that he says will be taken as “Rome has spoken the case is closed”. So perhaps on certain topics he refrains from speaking clearly so as not to close the case but instead he speaks in a certain way so that people discus and hopefully grow more faithful thereby changing the practice of Catholicism without having to issue top down edicts. You sort of get an inkling that that is what he was doing with his book Jesus of Nazareth.

  12. LarryD says:

    What movie, and did you like it?

    I wonder if the Holy Father goes forward with controversial statements knowing that they are going to create a furor precisely because he knows that there will be a public discussion to follow.

    I agree. And isn’t that exactly what Christ did? The Holy Father is only following in the Lord’s footsteps.

  13. DHippolito says:

    I cannot help but wonder if the Pope’s inner egg-head got the better of him here.

    Fr. Z, I believe that’s exactly what happened. It would be hard to imagine any Pope implicitly permitting prostitution under any circumstances (leaving the issue of condoms aside).

    I also believe that the Vaticanisti, in whose group any Pope has to be included, are so isolated from the real world that they have no concept about how real people live. I believe that was a major reason why the clerical sex-abuse crisis metasticized the way it did.

    Finally, the Pope’s off-hand remarks reflect the all-too-academic and all-too-esoteric approach Catholicism has taken toward practical moral questions. In situations in which real people face equally difficult decisions (such as Pres. Truman and Hiroshima/Nagasaki), the Church offers nothing but ivory-tower moralizing.

  14. I think this is one of the best analysis I have seen on this Father. Well said. [And you noticed that I didn't write it. Right?]

  15. Aaron B. says:

    Father,

    That’s a very optimistic theory. The problem is, even if the Pope is intentionally trying to start a conversation, it’s critical, as you said, that the Vatican press office be proactive in getting his message out there so they don’t keep looking blindsided. If this was planned, the book’s release should have been preceded by interviews and articles where various members of the hierarchy (if not the Pope himself; he’s a busy man) stressed the Church’s position on condoms while paving the way for this nuanced discussion. Talking points could even go out to the bishops, so that bishops and priests could preach on the subject, so their flock don’t have to hear about it first from the usual media attack dogs. Come on, this stuff isn’t that hard. Maybe someone at the Vatican press office could call the CCHD and have them call an ex-buddy at ACORN; they know how this stuff works.

    Do people in the Vatican have any idea how disheartening it is, as a Catholic today, to open your newspaper or web browser and see “Pope approves condom use!” splashed all over the headlines? We’re worn out from so many priests and even bishops preaching heresy over the past few decades, and reading something like this is like an extra punch in the gut, even if you know it can’t be true. How many Catholics will have to defend themselves yet again from non-Catholic associates challenging the faith and throwing these headlines in their faces, while they think to themselves, “Yeah, thanks for this, Vatican guys.”

    Of course, the Pope can’t win with the secular press. They’ll run articles non-stop where they accuse the Church and the Pope of being dogmatic and inflexible, and then the first time he tries to show the true nuance and flexibility of Church teaching on morality, they go bonkers and show exactly why inflexible dogmas are necessary. But if you’re going to step in front of their microphones, you have to know that and have a plan to deal with it.

  16. Aaron B. says:

    DHippolito,

    I think your last paragraph gets it exactly backwards. Ordinarily, Church teaching is portrayed like you say: ivory tower moralizing with no application to real life. But here, the pope was getting down to practical matters and saying (in a nutshell as I interpret it), “Look, there are degrees of sin, and while condom use is wrong, using a condom would be less evil than knowingly giving someone a deadly disease.” He was doing what parish priests have to do all the time: apply the dogma to real-life situations, understanding that people are fallible and that while it’s never right to condone a sin, it is possible to recognize that someone trying to rise out of a life of utter depravity might replace a more serious sin with a less serious one along the way.

    Maybe the problem is that that kind of nuanced application of dogma to specific circumstances belongs in the confessional or rectory office, or even the pulpit, but not an edited interview. From my own first- and second-hand experience with journalists and media editing, I know I sure wouldn’t try to explain anything halfway controversial to anyone with a microphone.

  17. dad29 says:

    Yes, I think he’s evangelizing, using a semi-Socratic methodology–that is, he gets others to ask the questions, allowing the Church’s answers, which are perfectly in accord with COMMON SENSE, to resound more loudly.

  18. anna 6 says:

    I thought that it was intriguing that you didn’t comment on the pope and condoms story yesterday!
    You were wise to delay commentary…and I completely agree with your assessment. The book is not like a plane interview, where the pope must speak off the cuff. He spoke spontaneously, but previewed it…made minor corrections and sent it to the CDF for review. The pope is very wise and knows exactly what he is doing (I am not so sure about some of the others though!)

    I have never noticed those extraordinary statuettes before…I will check them out.
    BTW….there are many ospreys on Long Island and the Jersey shore…so it is possible that he took a little trip into the city.

  19. Jason Keener says:

    Thanks for the pictures, Father. They are a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy day.

  20. DHippolito says:

    Aaron B., I have one problem with your criticism. What the Pope did was use a hypothetical involving prostitution. Yes, that is a “real life” problem but the fundamental problem isn’t so much the use of a condom during sex with a prostitute (the gender is irrelevant in this case) as much as it is the act of prostitution itself. Whatever possessed the Pope to use that kind of a hypothetical in front of a secular journalist? This is a man who is a serious theologian?

    Again, I think the Pope’s answer reflects the fundamental isolation of the Vaticanisti from the rest of the world. Whom exactly did the Pope think he was talking to and how did he expect his comments to be interpreted? We’re not dealing with a stupid man, here. We’re dealing with a man who thinks in tremendous complexities. Perhaps those complexities can afflict even the sharpest minds.

  21. swamp_rabbit says:

    So we’re not allowed to be nuanced because the NYTimes will go to town? They’ll go to town whatever the pope says! Had B16 simply said, “Condom use is always morally wrong” they’d have found a photo of him “scowling” and just ran with that headline, and complained that the pope wasn’t being nuanced enough for such a complex issue.

    For me, the troubling thing is all the Catholics interviewed in these articles who TOOK the skewed version at face value…

    Anyway, I can’t wait to read this book…!

  22. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Father, thank you very much for the photos of the Visitation statues.

    Do you know this altarpiece painting, I’ve seen dated to c. 1410?

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f9/WLANL_-_efraa_-_middelrijns_altaar.jpg

    There are supposed to be analogous Swabian papier maché figures of the Virgin and St. Flizabeth with St. John and Our Lord in utero in the Bayerische Nationalmuseum in Munich (catalogued R 1021), dated c. 1440, but I have not succeeded in finding any online image.

    Where these great ‘Germanic’ minds thinking alike, over the course of a century or so, or is there a conscious tradition?

  23. brianvzn says:

    Just read this about a Vatican spokesman : The Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters Tuesday that he had asked the pope whether he meant this to only apply to men. Benedict replied that it didn’t matter, that the important thing was that the intent was to take responsibility and take into consideration the life of the other. Lombardi said: “This is if you’re a woman, a man, or a transsexual.”

    In my opinion, this is a very slippery slope. People who use condoms not only do so to prevent pregnancy, but also so they can have risky sexual relations, especially on some college campuses where one night stands are sadly the norm rather than the exception. So if the Pope really believes that someone who knows they have AIDS can use a condom to protect the life of another, why shouldn’t college kids use them too? They don’t know what their sexual partners have. Of course premarital sex (fornication) is condemned by the Church, but so are acts of homosexuality, prostitution, and sex changes, or so I thought.

    I understand that our Pope’s intelligence makes his way of speaking go over many peoples’ heads, but the excerpts I have read so far from these interviews scare me. The comments about praying for the conversion of the Jews, condoms, etc. But most disturbingly, reports claim he says we can have a serious dialogue with Islam. About what? Islam is a heresy. It is a false religion. It has been condemned by many Popes. I’m not sure what there is to dialogue about. We must pray for the conversion of all peoples to the One True Church. May God bless our Pope. Let us pray for him.

    Happy Thanksgiving to all. Obviously enjoy the family, food, and football, but also we should try to attend morning Mass that day to give thanks to God for everything He has done for us.

  24. robtbrown says:

    DHippolito says:

    Aaron B., I have one problem with your criticism. What the Pope did was use a hypothetical involving prostitution. Yes, that is a “real life” problem but the fundamental problem isn’t so much the use of a condom during sex with a prostitute (the gender is irrelevant in this case) as much as it is the act of prostitution itself. Whatever possessed the Pope to use that kind of a hypothetical in front of a secular journalist? This is a man who is a serious theologian?

    The problem was created not because he is not a serious theologian but because he is. As someone who has taught theology, I have in answering a question often confused a layman simply because I am not accustomed to dealing with theologically inexperienced people. Everyone, incl your truly, needs to remember that because there is a 30+ year history of poor catechesis, people tend to substitute their own ideology.

    I already noted that the pope should have reaffirmed the Church’s position on homosexuality and contraception before answering the question.

    Again, I think the Pope’s answer reflects the fundamental isolation of the Vaticanisti from the rest of the world.

    Whom exactly did the Pope think he was talking to and how did he expect his comments to be interpreted? We’re not dealing with a stupid man, here. We’re dealing with a man who thinks in tremendous complexities. Perhaps those complexities can afflict even the sharpest minds.

    Vaticanisti would have given a boiler plate answer. The pope answered as an intellectual.