Current Comment

Promise of Ambiguity

The exchange these last weeks over Pope Benedict XVI’s comment about condom use as a first step in AIDS prevention has turned out to be a provocative case study both in ecclesiology and method in official teaching. That his response to the queries of his press spokesman, Frederico Lombardi, S.J., for clarification were alternately frank—referring to the varieties of contemporary sexuality: male, female, transsexual—and coy—responding to Lombardi with a silent smile—makes his remarks all the more intriguing.

With respect to ecclesiology, why did the pope choose the format of an interview rather than an official papal statement to break with the conventional hierarchical wisdom on condom use? Was he doing an end-run around his own Curia and the College of Cardinals? Was he demonstrating some of the down-to-earth pastoral common sense he has shown in dialogues with diocesan clergy, or do his remarks reflect his conversations with bishops for whom the AIDS epidemic is a pressing pastoral problem?


For moral theologians, perhaps the ambiguous sensitivity of Pope Benedict’s comments may discreetly signal a move away from the ecclesiastical positivism of the last pontificate, with its risk of drifting toward politicization of moral teaching. It may be that moral theologians and bishops who a decade ago took the same position as the pope, only to be rejected, can begin to hope that their collective wisdom might again function as an integral part of the ordinary magisterium, as it did for centuries. Perhaps, in line with the reduced expectations Benedict has sometimes attempted to encourage about the exercise of the papal office, he may be gently nudging bishops not to feel compelled to present themselves as oracles on new moral challenges.

Sharing the Beach

The good news from Israel is that some Israeli women are determined to share the basic pleasures of life with their deprived Palestinian neighbors. According to Ynetnews, one basic pleasure is a day at the beach—salt water, children rolling on the grass. Women stride into the surf, though fully clothed, and feel the sand beneath their feet.

Two women writers drove Palestinian women from the Territories to the Tel Aviv beach. Five women from another group brought Palestinian children to the shore twice a week during the summer for what may have been their only sight of the ocean in their lives. They guided toddlers through the security checkpoints (an 18-month-old baby was suspected of carrying a bomb). The lifeguard was reluctant to accept them, but in time his heart opened to the children. A 15-year-old boy who had dropped out of school to support his family was singled out as a security risk until press coverage got the ban on him revoked.

The bad news is that the two women writers were threatened, as they anticipated, with prosecution for violating the Entry Into Israel Law, and the Web site of Ynetnews was bombarded with hate mail from both the United States and Israel: If Palestinians want beaches, let them go to Gaza; kids in Colorado don’t see the beach either, but nobody raises money for them; women and children can still be terrorists.

One wonders, Why can’t Israelis and Palestinians share a beach? One commentator put it this way: “You treat these children like criminals for breathing the same air as you.”

A Duty of Self-Care

This New Year’s, as many people resolve to lose weight and take better care of themselves, a new study suggests American women would do well to maintain these resolutions not just for a year but for a lifetime. A state-by-state report card assessing women’s health in the United States was recently released by the National Women’s Law Center and the Oregon Health and Science University. The overall health of U.S. women was graded unsatisfactory; in some areas it is actually getting worse. Most surprising, say researchers, is that the number of women of all ages who indulge in binge drinking has gone up—to more than 10 percent in 2010 from 6.7 percent in 2007. In addition, the number of women who receive cervical cancer screenings has gone down even as the number of women who test positive for chlamydia has risen.

Perhaps less surprising is the fact that an increasing number of women struggle with obesity, diabetes and hypertension. Massachusetts and Vermont received the highest score given to any states for the health status of their residents, the low grade of “satisfactory minus.” Twelve states received a “failing” grade; Louisiana and Mississippi ranked lowest. The grades reflect failure to meet the government’s Healthy People 2010 initiative.

In a time when the unhealthiest foods are often the cheapest and many women are the sole providers for their families, few have the time or funds to find healthy meals or join a gym. Ensuring that fresh, healthy, local foods are affordable and available to all would be a good first step toward improvement. Recent reforms in heath care will expand Medicaid eligibility and put an end to some gender-based inequalities. Christian stewardship encompasses care for all of God’s creation, including oneself.

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C Walter Mattingly
8 years 2 months ago
Perhaps I miss something here, but it is hard for me to imagine moral teachings not having a politcal impact, or a "politicizing" dimension. The Church's opposition to the death penalty and abortion come immediately to mind, but there are so many others: duty to provide for the poor, care for the neighbor, even love of God above all others, all have in their execution at least political impact. Ambiguity, which is no clear position, might be an exception?
It is good to see America finally address the greatest present health epidemic in America, the self-induced one of obesity. Whereas the poor in FDR's time suffered from malnutrition and underweight, indicating an insufficiency of caloric intake for their level of physical activity, the recent American poor suffer from obesity, indicating excessive caloric intake for their level of physical activity. Obviously a different approach is required for these quite different health problems.
I would question America's concern about unavailability and unaffordability of healthful choices at grocery stores in poor inner city neighborhoods, however. It is true that a wide selection of healthful fresh vegetables is not as wide as it might be, but a chain that serves low-income inner city populations, such as Savalot, there is a wide selection of inexpensive frozen vegetables at bargain prices. Nutritionists speak very highly of frozen vegetables, picked at the height of freshness and nutrition, often more healthful than their fresh cousins which may not share those characteristics. In such stores a pound of spinach, peas, carrots, chicken, etc, is far less expensive than a pound of potato chips or a sixpack of coke or beer. That sound nutritional choices are unavailable to those of low income or on food stamps is a red herring; the diet choices are the issue. Michelle Obama has the right idea and a better heath plan than her husband: more vegetables, including fresh vegetables and nutritious, cheap frozen ones, and a change in exercise patterns to include something other than video games has the potential to do much good for Americans, should it gain traction.
8 years 2 months ago

Agree with everything you have written, Walter, except with what may be too quick an assumption about the availability of good dietary choices in some urban areas. Just a few weeks ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article detailing the lack of a single supermarket in Chester, PA. Good dietary instruction is provided there by various organizations, including a center sponsored by the Bernardine Sisters of St. Francis of Reading, PA, which also has fresh produce available.  Nor is this problem previously unheard-of in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. For years Camden, NJ, had no supermarket; only within the last year or two has one opened. Sav-a-Lots are great, as are Aldi, but they have to be where people without cars can get to them. Otherwise, groceries are purchased at more expensive and sometimes less healthful stores.  

8 years 2 months ago
Does the report break down the population by Catholic Universities and Colleges compared

 to secular or other denomination institutions?
Thomas Farrelly
8 years 2 months ago
Binge drinking, obesity, failure to get a cervical cancer screening, chlamydia - all are symptoms of self-destructive behavior.  Schools, churches, and other institutions can urge and educate, and
try to discourage such behavior, but ultimately it is a matter of individual responsibility.

The Pope certainly could have stated his message on condom use in a far clearer manner, and with a better example than the bizarre one of a male prostitute, by speaking in simple and direct words.  e.g. "When one spouse has AIDS or HIV and the other does not, the infected spouse has a strict responsibility to use a condom to protect the uninfected one."
8 years 2 months ago
YES! Simply stated as Tom Farrelly says.

However, I have to believe, if I understand correctly, that what Pope Benedict was trying to do was to point to the social, economic context within which HIV/AIDS was spreading throughout much of the non-Western World. We take for granted the conditions in the United States, (at least in the middleclass communities) access to clean water, nutritious food, sanitation and access to health care and education. These are the optimal conditions that assure that the individual will be able to survive and thrive.

The late Jonathan Mann, M.D., director of the WHO HIV program, tried to move the public towards understanding and incorporating the 'evironmental model' of health care, as a complementary component to make 'medical/health care' of the individual possible. Without the societal infrastructure of community with access to clean water, food, sanitation, health care and education we shouldn't be surprised at the outcomes we see such as in African nations. I believe that this is what Pope Benedict was trying to say when he said that Condoms are not the (sole) answer. Dr. Mann said as much! Obviously the language was not simple enough.

Dr. Mindy Fullilove Thompson and her husband Robert, too, have written about the destruction of communities (in the face of urban redevelopment) and how those 'loose connections' have unravelled. These are the social systems that make it possible to hold a family together, and empower them in a community that is responsive to their needs, for thsoe things I've listed.

Illnesses of the proportions we've seen in the United States among the populations that cannot be considered middleclass are a result of individuals not having access to those things. We experience in some communities here, what the Third World populations experience. We are social/communal creatures, not isolated individuals.

Our Catholic principle of subsidiarity is not just an 'idea', not just a 'word' we utter, it's about how our human connections, our common good, actually works.
Thomas Farrelly
8 years 2 months ago
Chris, while polluted water, poor nutrition, bad sanitation and lack of access to medical care are deplorable and cause many illnesses, they do not cause HIV/AIDS.   Contact with an infected person does, whether through sexual intercourse or needle-sharing.  Accurate information to the broad masses of a population, including those who are illiterate or poorly educated, is the best means of lowering the incidence of infection.  It is certainly harmful when the president of a country, or the health minister, propagate wrong information, as happened in South Africa, or fail to communicate correct information, as in a number of other countries.  Use of condoms by promiscuous infected people is an essential part of the program. 
While it is unfortunate that the Pope's message was so poorly conveyed, it is doubtful that this did much harm.  The prostitutes and African truck drivers who spread AIDS/HIV were not in fact
waiting for Papal permission to protect their sex partners. 
8 years 2 months ago
The editor greatly overstates the case when referring to "Pope Benedict XVI's comment about condom use as a first step in AIDS prevention."  I think that the Holy Father was quite clear that he was not recommending condoms.  One of your responders clearly shows confusion by stating the Holy Father should have gone further.  The Holy Father was trying to take some of the heat out of the discussion by allowing that some individuals, far from the moral awareness of realizing that sex belongs between two persons, i.e. a heterosexual couple,  married and committed to one another, might show some moral awakening by taking a step to prevent a partner from infection.  The Holy Father was not recommending the use of condoms.  I gather from this that the Holy Father means for those looking at the matter from the point of view of the Church's position on sexuality need not feel as alienated from the groups that disseminate condoms and advise their use.  Rather, the Church, and its affiliates, while staying clear of such a wrong-headed approach, should at least respect that some use may be a step in the right direction for those who do use them.  Certainly Catholic Relief Service and other Catholic groups should in no way participate in disseminating condoms or advise their use.  Traditional morality is really the only step that will eliminate this epidemic.  As I say, I believe the Holy Father was just trying to take some heat out of the discussion.  I hope he is successful.  However, some, it appears, including the editor at America should reread his comment on condoms.
C Walter Mattingly
8 years 2 months ago
Thanks for the insight. We should encourage further access to grocery stores where not easily accessible to patrons by foot or simple bus lines.


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