The Pope's Rorschach Test

by Ken Briggs

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

Catholic theologians have been taken to the woodshed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI for allegedly muddying up doctrinal waters.

Now Benedict has offered some ambiguity of his own on condom use in his interview with the German publication. The fact that the interview took place at all is remarkable and a credit to the pope. The crisis of credibility swirling around the Vatican may have played a large part in his choosing to break precedent (reporters have been clamoring for this for decades) but ultimately it was his own meritorious decision to do so.

Talking to the media without the usual protective filters is tricky business, as the pope undoubtedly realizes now if he didn't before. It tends to make interviewees overly simplify to assert their authority or overly nuance in an effort to satisfy everyone.

This pope's reputation has been as a sophisticated theologian with both style and clarity. In his previous role as John Paul II's doctrinal watchdog, he brooked no deviation from orthodox views, as he and John Paul saw them, and after becoming pope he continued to define issues sharply and firmly.

Pressured to move the church forward from relative paralysis, however, he hedged a bit on condom use and provided a Rorschach test which, accordingly, produced an assortment of projections.

To me, it offers striking evidence that the pope can be as unable as the rest of us to balance competing moral claims. Like Christians of various stripes and to differing degrees, he naturally has trouble holding on to absolutes.

Saving lives by using condoms as barriers against HIV/AIDS in some form could have been allowed in some form years ago if moral teach had been so obvious. Instead it has been flatly prohibited. A long trail of victims has died in the interim.

Condom use still is barred, but not quite. Male prostitutes may be permitted to use them in some cases according to some sort of enigmatic criteria.

Homosexual activity remains condemned, of course, and simply being homosexual is still "inherently disordered" but the surprise silver lining is that they are perhaps worth saving along with their customers. Maybe. You could read that as a backhanded affirmation of gay dignity but that's probably not what he meant. But it's not said he didn't mean it. It's open to interpretation. At any rate, should any approved recipient of condoms move over to heterosexuality, all bets are off. Don't even think of pregnancy prevention.

It's not use of a condom that's being approved, exactly, but the use of a condom as a first step on the way toward a catechetical understanding of human responsibility. Each male prostitute would presumably be handed a moral manual along with condoms to guide him along his path to ethical enlightenment. On a case by case basis, of course.

Behind the facade of moral certainty, therefore, here's an indication that the pope can be as uncertain as most of humanity.

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters