Friday, December 3, 2010

Papal Confusion, Part II

Part II

In part one of this reflection, I state my confusion at the Pope's statement about the use of a condom by a male prostitute. At first glance, I saw him being morally relativistic, suggesting that some evils are better than others. But on reflection, I now see that he might be publicly revealing an essential truth of Catholic morality that has been taught, mostly, behind closed doors.

The teaching has always been that the final arbiter in moral decision-making is the individual conscience. Its steps are simple: for each person, moral development is an ongoing process; at one stage of development, an individual might not be morally responsible, even for an intrinsically evil act. At a later stage, however, that same person could be morally culpable. An example: A child of five years old finds a gun and begins to play with it. It is loaded and goes off, killing a playmate. The child is not a murderer. But that child’s father is playing with the same gun, knowing it might still have a bullet or two in it. He aims at his child, pretending to shoot. The gun goes off and the child is killed. It was not his intention to kill the child. Does he bear more moral responsibility than the five year old who shot his friend? Most likely, because he is more mature in his decision-making, and was irresponsible for playing with the gun in the first place. Action that results in unintended consequences is evaluated not by he action itself, but by the degree of moral development the actor has achieved.

Or to use the Pope’s example: a young male who has been sexually abused since early childhood has learned that sex is a commodity. He knows nothing of love, but knows what gives pleasure and warrants reward. So he sells his sexuality on the streets to anyone who will pay the price. As a male prostitute, he hears about sexually transmitted diseases and makes two decisions: one is to protect himself; the other is to protect his customers. He uses a condom and insists that his customers do the same. Are his actions moral? Is there a moral way to do an immoral thing? The pope is saying that by using a condom, the prostitute is manifesting an incipient awareness of moral responsibility. He has not gone very far in his moral development, but has taken a first step—had a spiritual awakening. Perhaps nothing he is doing is intrinsically moral, but his culpability is limited by his moral awareness, which was greatly retarded during the abuse of his youth and adolescence.

These sorts of distinctions are usually made at the level of the local Church. The teaching church usually lays out the principles and the pastoring church applies them. That’s where the confusion comes in, for me. The pope’s statement is pastoral rather than magisterial. He is not presenting the highest ideal in this case, but applying a moral principle to the reality of an individual’s life and circumstances, which is a major responsibility of a pastor. The confusion is not caused by the Pope’s taking this unusual step; it is caused by the rarity of Pope’s doing so!

The customary role of the moral theologian is to present what would be true under ideal circumstances. The role of the pastoral theologian is to acknowledge that ideal circumstances rarely exist and to help those s/he pastors to make the best moral decision they can under the circumstances they face. So a male prostitute decides to use a condom. The pastor works with that person to increase his moral awareness, in the hope of his moving beyond his circumstances o a realization of the morality of his life-style. But neither the pope and bishops who teach the ideal nor the pastor who leads people towards it have any right to impose behavior on or even to judge a person who has made the best decision he or she can, given the state of development of their moral conscience. The goal is to increase a morally consciousness, not to control behavior and punish those who deviate from he moral ideal. Moral teachings reveal humanity in a perfect, ideal reality. They are not laws that must be followed, under pain of eternal punishment, but ideals toward which the entire church strives. If that were kept less secretive, the Pope’s message would not confuse anyone. I wonder how far he’ll go at opening the door and keeping it open.

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