The media firestorm swirling around Pope Benedict’s discussion of morality and condom use seems like a good illustration of the problem of great trouble and anguish being caused by making completely true and reasonable points. The pope’s comment itself is both true and sensible: there is nothing magically wicked about condoms in and of themselves, rather it is using them in order to render sexual relations sterile which is immoral. However, because the pope is such a uniquely high-profile figure in the world, both those (inside and outside the Church) who are desperately eager for the Church to approve artificial contraception as morally licit, and those who live in constant fear that the faith will somehow be betrayed to the ravening hoards outside, immediately went into full freak-out mode.
Various writers who consider the Church’s stance on birth control to be hopelessly backward immediately declared a “first step”.
Nervous traditionalists took pause, yet again, to publicly worry that Benedict is betraying them.
And, doubtless, many people (Catholic and otherwise) who don’t pay much attention to such issues noticed the headlines, didn’t read any in-depth coverage, and quietly filed away in the backs of their minds, “Oh, so Catholics can use birth control under some circumstances.”
This kind of thing can be frustrating to those who care deeply about exploring the nuances of moral points. On the one hand, what the pope said is completely true. On the other, the way in which it became publicized will doubtless lead more people into error than into truth. Does this mean that such nuanced discussion of high profile moral issues should simply not happen? Or that it should not be undertaken by someone as high profile as the pope?
It seems anti-intellectual to say that issues sufficiently borderline as to present the danger of leading people astray should simply not be discussed. And yet, at a certain level, the purpose of our Church is to bring people to heaven — including ordinary people who are easily unsettled or deceived — not to serve as a debating society for a small number of people who are educated in the finer points of theology. Ideally, it would be possible for the pope to discuss such issues in venues primarily read by those capable of understanding what he is saying, and not have his comments distorted and repeated out to those who are likely to be confused or upset. Yet in a world of mass global communications that seems clearly impossible.
The same technology which makes it more possible than ever for anyone, anywhere to access Church documents and other sources of Catholic teaching which were much harder to come by only a few decades ago also makes it all to easy for a line or two to be pulled out of context from some longer statement and flooded all over the world in a matter of hours. Whether that means that prominent thinkers must now be more circumspect in what they choose to discuss at all than was the case in the past is probably a question worth giving at least some thought to.