The Times story was hardly the worst of the maelstrom of media misrepresentation, which was initiated by the once-authoritative Associated Press. This latest example of pack journalism was a disservice in itself, and it also highlighted several false assumptions that continually bedevil coverage of the Catholic Church and the Vatican and one specific media obsession that is, to be brutally frank, lethal in its consequences.
The first false assumption beneath the latest round of media condomania is that the Church’s settled teaching on sexual morality is a policy or a position that can change, as tax rates can be changed or one’s position on whether India should be a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council can change. To be sure, the theological articulation of the Catholic ethic of sexual love has been refined over centuries; it has come to an interesting point of explication in recent years in John Paul II’s “theology of the body.” But it has not changed and it will not change because it cannot be changed. And it cannot change or be changed because the Catholic ethic of sexual love is an expression of fundamental moral truths that can be known by reason and are illuminated by revelation.
The second false assumption beneath the condom story is that all papal statements of whatever sort are equal, such that an interview is an exercise of the papal teaching magisterium. That wasn’t true of John Paul II’s international bestseller, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, in which the late pope replied to questions posed by Italian journalist Vittorio Messori. It wasn’t true of the first volume of Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, in which the pope made clear at the outset that he was speaking personally as a theologian and biblical scholar, not as the authoritative teacher of the Church. And it isn’t true of Light of the World. Reporters who insist on parsing every papal utterance as if each were equally authoritative — and who often do so in pursuit of a gotcha moment — do no good service to their readers.
The third false assumption was a “historic change” of Catholic teaching of the sort that was misreported to have taken place would be announced through the medium of an interview. It will perhaps come as a blow to the self-esteem of the fourth estate to recognize an elementary fact of Catholic life, but the truth of the matter is that no pope with his wits about him would use the vehicle of an interview with a journalist to discuss a new initiative, lay out a pastoral program, or explicate a development of doctrine. Light of the World is chock-full of interesting material, explaining this or that facet of Catholic faith, reflecting on the successes, challenges, and communications errors of the pontificate to date, even pondering personal questions such as the possibility of a papal retirement. But such interviews never are going to be used for the most serious exercises of papal authority.
As for the media obsession, it is, of course, with the notion of Salvation by Latex. Shortly after the pope’s visit to Africa, where he was hammered by the press for alleged insensitivity to AIDS victims because of his reiteration of the Catholic sexual ethic, a distinguished student of these matters, Dr. Edward Green, published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post with the striking title, “The Pope May Be Right.” Green, who is not a Catholic, made a powerful case that abstinence outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage are, empirically, the genuine AIDS-preventers. He was right, according to every thorough study of this terrible plague. But you would never know that by the coverage of Catholics and condoms — just as you would likely never learn that, as a global institution, the Catholic Church serves more AIDS sufferers than any other similarly situated community.
What humane purpose is served by this media obsession with condoms? What happens to the press’s vaunted willingness to challenge conventional wisdom when the issue at hand is anything touching on sexual license? It seems to disappear. And one fears that a lot of people are seriously hurt — and die — as at least an indirect result. Consciences indeed need to be examined in the matter of condoms, Catholics, and AIDS. But the consciences in question are those of the press.
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