Now that I have your attention … One of the stupidest and most dispiriting expressions of the media culture that I have ever encountered is the “coverage” of Pope Benedict’s recently-published interview entitled Light of the World. I can’t really say that I was surprised.
I had received an advance copy of the book and had prepared a piece on it when I met a woman involved in organizing the publicity for its release. "They’re going to talk about condoms,” I said.
"But it’s such a minor theme and it’s mentioned on, like, a quarter of a page at the end of one chapter,” she said.
"They're going to talk about condoms,” I replied.
Sure enough, prompted by a leak by L’Osservatore Romano (that’s a story for another day), the leading news organizations screamed about “changes in the church’s teaching” and “the Pope allowing the use of condoms” and “a revolution in Catholic theology.”
Of course, even the most cursory reading of the text and context of the Pope’s remarks would reveal that nothing of the kind was on offer. Benedict remarked that a male prostitute’s willingness to use a condom would signal a first step, on his part, toward a more mature and responsible moral attitude.
Did this imply that the Pope was giving the green light to condom use? Absolutely not. Janet Smith, a respected Catholic moral theologian, provided an apt comparison. A bank robber would indeed be demonstrating a heightened moral consciousness should he resolve to pull off his next robbery using a gun with no bullets. But applauding such a move, she argues, would hardly be tantamount to “permitting” or “condoning” armed robbery.
But the gross misunderstanding of the Pope’s words is actually not the major problem. The biggest difficulty is the obsession with sexual issues which bedevils, not only the secular media, but too many within the church itself, both on the left and the right.
About 10 years ago, the New York Times Magazine ran a story on the new generation of seminarians. It demonstrated their vigor, their enthusiastic orthodoxy, and their eagerness to preach the Gospel. But when the reporter asked one young man, soon to be ordained to the priesthood, what topic he especially wanted to proclaim from the pulpit, he responded, “I want people to stop masturbating!”
Now say what you want about the morality of masturbation, I think that you’d be hard pressed to read the Gospel of Matthew or Paul to the Romans or the book of Revelation or the book of the prophet Isaiah and conclude that the central point is “don’t masturbate.”
Though you’d never guess it from most discussions in the media (or many in the church), the central point is grace and divine friendship. On the Biblical reading, the spiritual thing always begins with grace—the offer of the divine life—and grace leads to joyful transformation. It doesn’t commence with moralizing.
In his opening speech in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the Good News.” Notice that the kingdom—the inbreaking of God’s love—comes first and the call to moral conversion follows.
In his encounter with the woman at the well, Jesus did not immediately call the woman to change her immoral ways; rather, he invited her into a relationship with him. Then, in the warmth and light provided by that friendship, she was ready to listen and to change. Joyfully, she set down her bucket (symbolic of her addictive patterns of life) and went into the town to proclaim the one “who told her everything she’d ever done.”
When the spiritual project begins with moralizing, it ends in fruitless guilt and resentment. When it begins with grace, it ends in enthusiastic conversion.
The Pope understands this dynamic perfectly—which is precisely why the bulk of his interview is about God and God’s offer of love. What particularly vexes Benedict XVI is that many in the West have either denied or conveniently forgotten about God. And this has conduced, he sees, to deep alienation, isolation, and spiritual drift—even in the midst of much material wealth.
When God is brought back to the center of our concern, when we enter into friendship with God, then spontaneously we want to change; we want to live lives of radical love. And this is where the moral teaching of the church—including and especially its sexual teaching—comes in. Everything that the church says about human sexuality is designed to conduct people along a path of ever greater self-gift—in response to the God who has given himself to them. But abstracted from grace, the sexual teaching of the church will seem to most, almost certainly, as fussy, puritanical moralizing.
And this is why it is so tragic that Benedict’s wide-ranging, smart, and spiritually alert book is reduced to the question of condom use. For the Pope, as for the mainstream of the Catholic tradition, what matters—first and last—is the gift that God gives. Those who have received that gift want to learn how they can become, in turn, more and more conformed to love.