Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Pope, Bush, Voltaire, Etc.

Good news? From the Times:

Ideals Collide as Vatican Rethinks Condom Ban

ROME, May 1 — Even at the Vatican, not all sacred beliefs are absolute: Thou shalt not kill, but war can be just. Now, behind the quiet walls, a clash is shaping up involving two poles of near certainty: the church's long-held ban on condoms and its advocacy of human life.

The issue is AIDS. Church officials recently confirmed that Pope Benedict XVI had requested a report on whether it might be acceptable for Catholics to use condoms in one narrow circumstance: to protect life inside a marriage when one partner is infected with H.I.V. or is sick with AIDS.

Whatever the pope decides, church officials and other experts broadly agree that it is remarkable that so delicate an issue is being taken up. But they also agree that such an inquiry is logical, and particularly significant from this pope, who was Pope John Paul II's strict enforcer of church doctrine.

"In some ways, maybe he has got the greatest capacity to do it because there is no doubt about his orthodoxy," said the Rev. Jon Fuller, a Jesuit physician who runs an AIDS clinic at the Boston Medical Center....

Those of you who know me may know that I have a fondness for the Catholics. (So fond of them that I converted, and then lapsed into an agnostic funk.) A fondness that endures even as they disappoint me for their increasing willingness to partner with the evangelicals for political culture-of-life gain. These are dark days because evangelicals, who usually refuse to soften their stance on anything, have within the last decade decided to reach out to The Christians They Formerly Described As Cultish Heathens--Catholics and Mormons--to work together on issues like abortion, gay marriage, etc. The thinking is that they should dissolve their differences and work together to establish a pro-life, sexually panicked hegemon.

The point is, I'm glad to see that the Church (yes! capital C!) is willing to even think and talk about condoms, even though yes, it's ridiculous that they ban them--while evangelicals also consider condoms as bad as abortion, I'm pretty sure they won't ever, ever budge on that. They don't like to admit they might have to do some thinking about an ill-advised stance. The sinister beauty of the evangelicals is that they do not have a head office like the Vatican, and so can avoid having to come together as a body to discuss policies and mistakes and wrongs against individuals and groups. In the same way I was glad that John Paul wagged his finger at Bush about Iraq whenever they met. That Pope was a hardheaded hardass too, but in geopolitical theatre, I'll take whatever cracks in the plot I can get.

I'm reading something now by a Canadian philosopher named Charles Taylor called A Catholic Modernity?. A friend of a friend recommended it. It's a lecture he gave in 1996 at the University of Dayton, followed by responses by four thinkers, George Marsden and Jean Bethke Elshtain being the two most "famous" ones. Richard Rorty, who I like a great deal, likes him. I can see why, as both of them think (seem to think, in Taylor's case, as this is the only thing I've read of his) a great deal about how to create ways to argue for and describe human freedom and tolerance without resorting to, as Taylor says below "ultimate visions". In the lecture his aim is to address the failures of Christianity and the failures of secular humanism. Third ways are underrated and underused.

Here's something from the lecture:

Thus, to say that the fullness of rights culture couldn't have come about under Christendom is not to point to a special weakness of Christian faith. Indeed, the attempt to put some secular philosophy in the place of the faith
--Jacobinism, Marxism--has scarcely led to better results (in some cases, spectacularly worse). This culture has flourished whenever the casing of Christendom has been broken open and where no other single philosophy has taken its place, but the public sphere has remained the locus of competing ultimate visions....

So a vote of thanks to Voltaire and others for (not necessarily wittingly) showing us this and for allowing us to live the Gospel in a purer way, free of that continual and often bloody forcing of conscience which was the sin and blight of all those "Christian" centuries. The gospel was always meant to stand out, unencumbered by arms. We have now been able to return a little closer to that ideal--with a little help from our enemies.

If only this administration understood the value of keeping the public sphere a locus of competing visions, ideals, philosophies. And evangelicals understood the value of help from their enemies (other than the Mormons and Catholics). So awful to think that ten years after this lecture, we'd need our own 21st century Voltaires to do some damage.