Thursday, December 9, 2010

10-12-05: 2nd Sunday of Advent (A)

Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10 / Psalm 72 / Romans 15:4-9 / Matthew 3:1-12

Contemporary Moral Problems and that Slippery Slope (in two parts)
Part I

John the Baptist is the subject of today’s Advent gospel. We see him crazed, screaming and yelling, prophesying gloom and doom, calling for repentance on a national scale. Why? Because he’s upset the king married his sister-in-law! For John, this is emblematic of the moral decay into which his society has fallen – or, at least, it’s the first step on that slippery slope that (we’re often told) leads us into a moral morass. John is not simply being a conservative voice for a return to family values; he’s become the poster boy for religious fundamentalism. For the fundamentalist, as for the Baptist, morality is all black and white, either/or, yes or no. And, although the Church holds the Baptist in great esteem, it is important to recognize that we, like the first disciples, are called to follow Jesus - not John. Jesus was no John the Baptist; nor did he preach the extremism that the Baptist embraced.

Some ardent Catholic conservatives, seeking a modern-day Baptist to save us from that proverbial moral morass, are no longer looking to Pope Benedict to fill the vacancy. After the media blitz regarding the pope’s recently published remarks about condoms to a Swiss journalist, some would have us believe that the remarks make little difference in the church’s stand regarding the prohibition of condoms. But not so – at least not in ways we may at first think.

First, the pope is not changing the church’s teaching regarding the immorality of artificial contraception. But he is not pulling a John the Baptist either, raging (as some would want him to) against the immorality of all condom use. The pope is, in fact, being ardently conservative; calling for a return to basic principles of Catholic morality. He’s simply asking us to recall that morality is more than just what we do; it also depends on why we do something; and it likewise involves an evaluation of the circumstances surrounding our actions.

With the emergence of HIV/AIDS, especially in Africa, circumstances and intention may indeed be mitigating factors in the moral use of condoms. In the case of a married couple, for example, where one partner is HIV infected and the other is not, the use of condoms may be contemplated – not to contracept – but to prevent deadly infection. This classic Catholic moral principle of double-effect was long argued by certain African bishops but vehemently condemned by others – not out of principle - but from fear that it would place us on that slippery slope which would lead us into genuinely immoral acts. The pope’s recent suggestion may finally allow us to reasonably dialogue about such situations. The slippery slope the pope has perhaps helped us avoid is not the one that leads to a moral morass but, rather, the one that leads to a dangerous fundamentalism.

The pope’s off-the-cuff remarks (if they were that) may be but a small safeguard against the rush to ski that slippery slope towards uncritical dogmatism as recent events in the United States seem to indicate. I’m thinking of the speech Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville just delivered to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (which then elected him vice president). In his speech the archbishop made an extraordinary comparison. In a classic example of that slippery-slope mentality, the archbishop compared legislation allowing same-sex marriage with the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. Now, whether you’re for or against gay marriage, does anyone really believe, in their heart of hearts, that permitting two men or two women to call themselves married is the equivalent of abortion? The slope the archbishop fears we’re slipping down is not the one leading so much to a permissive chaos, but rather the one leading into religious fundamentalism which, if history be any reliable judge, will end up doing more damage to the Catholic Faith than condom-use, gay marriage or marrying your sister-in-law.

…to be continued

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