Is the Pope Becoming Pastoral?

Last week we read some surprising news coming out of the Vatican: there might be some movement on the condom front (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Pope Benedict XVI, in the course of speaking with a German journalist, seemed to indicate that there are times when the use of a condom is permissible.

Peter Seewald interviewed the Pope in anticipation of publishing a book: Light of the World: The Pope, the World and Signs of the Times. They had collaborated on two previous books: The Ratzinger Report and Salt of the Earth. In the course of the interviews the Pope indicated that there may be times when it is permissible for someone to use a condom. He illustrated this by talking about a male prostitute who is HIV positive. He wishes to change his life but isn’t ready yet, and he doesn’t wish to spread the virus any further. The Pope feels that in this case it would be permissible for him to use a condom as a way of not spreading the virus while he continues to reform his life.

This has caused a great deal of confusion in the Catholic world given the historic (and histrionic) view toward condoms and other forms of birth control. Before we learned about AIDS and the role of HIV, condoms were almost exclusively used as birth control for heterosexual couples. Since the Catholic Church condemns all forms of birth control, condom use was always prohibited. In the 1980s gay men began to use condoms as a way to prevent the spread of AIDS, and it widened to include any couple who wished to practice “safe sex.” Unfortunately many groups (the Vatican included) responded to this by incorrectly claiming that condoms aren’t effective in stopping the virus. As recently as March, 2009 the Pope claimed that condoms could “aggravate” the spread of AIDS.

So what gives? The Catholic blogosphere is on fire with the question: “Has the Catholic Church changed its teaching?” The Vatican has gone to great lengths to claim it hasn’t, and in the final analysis, they’re right.

But it’s more complicated than that.

The Catholic Church still prohibits artificial birth control among married couples and any sexual activity among unmarried couples. Since the Catholic Church doesn’t recognize gay marriage, this includes all gay couples. The change has been not one of doctrine or teaching, but pastoral application.

In the past the Church has appeared (at least to me) to draw a bright line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Simply put, if you are committing a sin you need to stop. If you are practicing birth control or cheating your employees, there is no middle ground: stop and stop now. The Pope’s remarks appear to acknowledge that in the struggle to change our behavior, we sometimes need to take intermediate steps. I applaud this step and encourage the Pope to continue doing what he’s doing.

I mentioned earlier that this has created some activity in the Catholic blogosphere. Several writers are getting it right, but many are getting it wrong. My favorite is a string on the Catholic Answers forum.

My final word on this (and I get the final word because it’s my blog) is my hope that this increased interest in pastoral applications will lead the Pope and the Vatican to examine again some of their doctrines. The birth control stuff doesn’t bother me because most Catholic couples already cheerfully ignore this anyway. But I do hope that this leads to a sense of conversion (an intermediate step, if you will) to look again at Church stands that discriminate against women, homosexuals, and other members of our Church. We’ll see.

Decision 2010: It's going to be a long night

6:00PM Pacific Time, 9:00PM Eastern Time, 0200 GMT: It’s time for my semi-annual night to follow the national elections. We’re halfway through the 1st Barack Obama administration. Historically a new President looses seats in the election two years into his first term. The smart money today is that the Democratic Party will lose control of the House and may lose control of the Senate.

Before I begin, let me say (by way of my soapbox) that I write this as a grateful American. If you look at our world, we are blessed to live in a country that allows us to vote for our leaders. It’s pretty amazing that I can criticize and even make fun of those in government and nobody can arrest or prosecute me.

And now, onto the races. Here in California we had two huge races that are probably all but decided. The race for governor to replace Arnold Schwarzenegger has been headlines for months, but it appears from recent polling that Jerry Brown will beat Meg Whitman by a considerable number. It appears that many California voters are not thrilled for another Brown administration (he was governor from 1975-1983) but don’t like the fact that Meg has spent over $150,000,000 of her own money in an attempt to buy the election.

The headlines in this election center around the Tea Party. The party stands for “Taxed Enough Already” and believes that the Republican Party has abandoned its platform of lower taxes and smaller government. So far tonight it’s been mixed. In Kentucky it appears that Rand Paul won the Senate seat. He’s famous for questioning the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which ended segregation. Paul believes that if you own a business you should be able to hire or do business with anyone you choose, and the government cannot force you into a decision.

On the other hand, the Tea Party candidate in Delaware, Christine O’Donnell, lost big. Also, in New York Carl Palodino has lost. He’s famous for promising to take a baseball bat to (state capital) Albany. I guess New Yorkers prefer bats in the hands of the Yankees and Mets.

7:30PM Pacific Time, 10:30PM Eastern Time, 0330 GMT: CNN is projecting that the Republicans will take back the House of Representatives. If that’s true, it will be a repeat of 1994 when the Democrats lost the House led by Newt Gingrich. It appears that the American people once again like divided government.

The House basically runs on majority rule: There are 435 members and anytime you get 217 votes, the bill passes. But that’s the easiest part of this. The Senate is made up of 100 members, and they also run on majority rule, but not as easily. If there is a bill being debated, any Senator can filibuster (that is, get up to speak and not yield that position). If that happens the Senator cannot be removed from the microphone without a vote of “cloture.” Cloture means that 60 Senators vote to end the debate, or in other words, 41 Senators can block any legislation. Famously, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond filibustered on August 29, 1957 for 24 hours and 18 minutes to oppose the 1957 Civil Rights Act.

If a bill gets a majority vote in the House, has the support of at least 60 Senators, it then goes to the President who can sign or veto the bill. If the President vetoes the bill, then a 2/3 majority of both chambers (291 House members and 67 Senators) must vote to override the veto.

Clearly the framers of the Constitution wished to make change difficult. It’s been 223 years since the Constitution was ratified and this electorate appears to agree with them. More to come: the polls close here in California in a few minutes.

8:00PM Pacific Time, 11:00PM Eastern Time, 0400 GMT: The polls have just closed here in California, and based on exit polls it appears that Jerry Brown has defeated Meg Whitman and Barbara Boxer has defeated Carly Fiorina. I’m always mistrustful of exit polls, and I refuse to participate in them, but I hope they’re right. I’ve never been a fan of wealthy people running for office based on their checkbooks and the belief that anyone can govern. The reality is that there really is a skill set for public servants and the fact that you can (or can’t, in the case of Carly) run a company doesn’t make you competent for office.

9:00PM Pacific Time, 12:00AM Eastern Time, 0500 GMT: As of a few minutes ago, CNN projected that Barbara Boxer will be re-elected to the Senate and that means that the Democrats will retain a majority. As I’ve stated, a party needs more than a 60-40 majority to control the Senate, and in that sense it doesn’t make all that much difference, but as a Californian I’m happy to see Barbara continue to represent us.

The surprise for me is Nevada. Harry Reid has been fighting for his life, and as I write this, he’s ahead 52% to 44% with 59% of the districts reporting. That’s a bigger lead than I expected. Nobody is predicting this race yet, and the night is long ahead, but I’m pleased to see Harry so far ahead.

It’s now 9:12PM and CNN has projected Jerry Brown the new governor. As I said, I’m not crazy about Jerry, but I’m relieved that it’s not Meg. I’m not impressed with her EBay experience, and I’m really not impressed that she’s running on the same platform as Arnold Schwarzenegger (“I have no idea how to do this job, so vote for me.”).

It’s now 9:40 and CNN is projecting Harry Reid as the winner in the Nevada Senate race. I know he’s a polarizing figure, but I’m glad he won.

10:00PM Pacific Time, 1:00AM Eastern Time, 0600 GMT: The night is winding down and it looks like it’s going to be a good night for the Republican Party. John Boehner will probably be House Speaker in January, though Harry Reid will remain the Senate Majority Leader. This means the Democrats have the Presidency and the Senate and the Republicans have the House. I only hope that this helps the groups work together.

Here in California, the story is often as much about ballot propositions as anything else. I think it’s a flaw in the state Constitution, but it’s fairly easy to put a proposition on the ballot. It appears that Prop 19 will go down (it allows us to grow and smoke marijuana) and I’m happy about that. I don’t expect to know much more about the other propositions until morning.

Good night for now.