Papal vacillation

The only concrete example given by Benedict of justified condom use is for a male prostitute, where there is no chance of fertilization.

November 21, 2010 23:37
3 minute read.

Pope in red 311 AP. (photo credit: AP)


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In a show of sensitivity to real-life dilemmas, Pope Benedict XVI has condoned the use of condoms as a means of fighting AIDS/HIV epidemics, partially backtracking on his previously held stand that condoms would only “aggravate the problem.”

In sub-Saharan Africa, about 30 million people are infected by AIDS/HIV and three-quarters of worldwide deaths from it occur there.

However, the pope’s comments, which appear in a new book entitled Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times, and which were reported in the Vatican’s newspaper this weekend, were heavily qualified. The only concrete example given by Benedict of justified condom use is for a male prostitute. It would seem that condom use is permissible only in cases where there is no chance of fertilization.

In the 1960s, the Vatican had condoned giving contraceptive pills to nuns at risk of rape by fighters in the Congo to prevent pregnancy, arguing that the contraception was a lesser evil than pregnancy in such cases, a cogent moral argument. It’s hard to see why a similar argument does not prevail in the matter of condoms and the epidemic-proportion deaths caused by AIDS in sub- Saharan Africa.

Benedict XVI may be motivated by good intentions, including in the desire to relieve suffering in Africa, but he seems to suffer from a chronic inability to follow through on these intentions.

JUST LAST month, for instance, in an apparently sincere effort to address the plight of the dwindling Christian community in the Middle East, Benedict convened a special Vatican synod of Middle East bishops. Yet the pope allowed the synod to be hijacked by Arab bishops who chose in their concluding “message” to bash Israel, the only country where the Christian community is actually growing, while practically ignoring widespread violence perpetrated by Muslim extremists.

Elements of the statement, drafted under the direction of Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros, head of the Greek Melkite Church in America, even contradict the Nostra Aetate, a groundbreaking interfaith document drafted in October 1965 during the Second Vatican Council that radically revamped the Church’s previous negative views of the Jewish people.

Sadly, just days after the synod issued its statement, a ghastly incident served as proof of Christians’ true persecutors. An al-Qaida terror cell stormed a Baghdad church, held dozens of worshipers hostage, and ended up slaughtering 44 Christians, two priests and seven security personnel in an ensuing shoot-out with Iraqi police. Nearly a month after the synod’s distorted, anti-Israel diatribe was released, the pope has yet to speak out on the matter.

The case of Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson is another example of Benedict’s good intentions but ultimate vacillation. In January 2009, immediately after the Vatican revoked the excommunication of Williamson, 70, and three other ultra-traditionalist bishops, the British-born clergyman said on Swedish television that no more than 300,000 Jews perished in the Holocaust and that there were no gas chambers.

In Light of the World, Benedict notes that he would not have lifted the 22-year excommunication ban on Williamson if he had known of the bishop’s views on the Holocaust. Yet, inexplicably, the pope stops short of suggesting that he will consequently take steps to reinstate Williamson’s excommunication. In recent days Williamson has employed a neo-Nazi lawyer to defend him in a German court against charges of Holocaust denial, a criminal offense in Germany.

ONLY IN one case does the pope seem to be intent on following through where caution is the more advisable route. The pontiff appears stubbornly insistent on granting sainthood to Pius XII, who was pope during the Holocaust. Historians have asked the Vatican to put Pius’ sainthood process on hold until the Holy See opens up its archives from his papacy. But Benedict claims in Light of the World that an internal “inspection” of those unpublished documents has failed to support “negative” allegations against Pius.

If the church’s integrity is to be taken seriously, the pope will have to judge more effectively when to take a courageous stand and when preceding with caution is the truly moral act. Sadly, Benedict XVI seems to have difficulty making these distinctions, causing further damage to an already embattled religious institution struggling for legitimacy in a era of skepticism and doubt.

Vacillation has moral ramifications no less real than resolve.

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