Thursday, December 09, 2010

Benedict's "Condoms:" From Morality to Sanctity

Synderesis to Anamnesis


The facts: In the Seewald interview, “Light of the World,”to the remark that “Critics, including critics from the Church’s own ranks, object that it is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms,” Benedict XVI commented on the sensation of being provoked in a previous interview on the plane to Cameroon on March 17, 2009 by the complaint that the Catholic Church “is often considered unrealistic and ineffective” in the struggle to stop the contagion of AIDS.[2] He said to Seewald: “In my remarks I was not making a general statement about the condom issue, but merely said, and this is what caused such great offense, that we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms. Much more needs to be done.” He went on to say that there were two things that had to be done: “bringing out the human dimension of sexuality, that is to say a spiritual and human renewal that would bring with it a new way of behaving towards others, and secondly, true friendship…”[3] He then comments that “the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.”[4] Benedict

It is important to establish from the start that Benedict XVI is not talking about the morality of condom use. He is talking about the metaphysical anthropology of the human person as self-gift which can be enhanced in certain cases – never in the intrinsically evil case of contraception - by the use of the condom. To misunderstand this, and to think that he is talking about the moral use of the condom, is to side with the media that is hyping his remarks to be the condoning of condomized contraception, or to side with the orthodox conservatives who feel that they have to reduce the damage of the media hype that will trumpet Vatican approval of condomized contraceptive sex. Both sides are talking morality. Benedict is talking the recovery of the human person: sanctity.

Benedict XVI knows exactly what he is doing. For a man sensitive enough to realize that his book “Jesus of Nazareth” was a “huge risk” in confusing his personal theological ideas with the official Magisterium of the Church, he is certainly cognizant that to speak of the positive use of the condom to a media whose agendum is universal media consumption, is to wave the red flag. Concerning the book “Jesus of Nazareth,” he wrote in the same Seewald interview: “I very intentionally wanted the book to be, not an act of the Magisterium but an effort to participate in the scholarly discussion and an attempt to propose a form of exegesis, an interpretation of Scripture, that is not beholden to a positivist historicism but that also includes faith as an element of interpretation. It is obviously a huge risk to do this, given the contemporary exegetical landscape. But it has to be done if scriptural exegesis is really serious about being theology.”[5]

He is doing exactly this with regard to his remarks on the use of the condom in such a sexually charged atmosphere as the media, and he knows that there is a huge risk to do this. He will be misunderstood. And he has been by both media who see such a remark as advancing their agendum, and who control both the lights and the microphone of public opinion, while there are some conservative orthodox who may reduce such remarks only to conceptual moral categories. These latter will attempt to minimize the “damage.”

But since the general population as well as those in the Church are trapped in the global culture of consumption, media saturation and technological control of the environment where the self languishes in unencumbered isolation, they are incapable of setting off on “a new trajectory of thinking”[6] and “broadening reason”[7] by the experience of thinking of others. Hence, he risks startling.

Concretely, then, what did he say? “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.”

Seewald then smells blood: “Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?” Benedict responds: “She [the Church] of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”

Seewald’s question is the question of morality. But Benedict is talking anthropology and not morality. He is working on the level of the metaphysical architecture of the human person as subject (not the object of a concept) as to whether he is constitutively “substance” (the philosophic category of being a thing-in-itself and not-in-another) or relation (to-be-for-other). He is completely cognizant that the received understanding of the person as a substance/rational animal has pride of place in the general consciousness, pace the development of the person as subject-for-the-other that took place in Vatican II[8] and that has not been understood in the pew, on the altar, and a fortiori in the street. With the increase of positivism as the universal method of knowing, which dumbs reason down to the mere accumulation of facts and data bases thereof, and the turn to self-absorption in modern technical society, sexuality has been trivialized – or “banalized” as Benedict says – such that it is recreation, or a “contact sport” as the jargon has it.

What Benedict has in mind with his remark on the condom is a gesture (“a first step”) to recover the positive value of the person as gift – relation - even within the intrinsically immoral act of homosexuality. He is not talking about the use of the condom in heterosexual intercourse where it would be immoral as contraceptive, and therefore debilitating anthropologically as well. He is talking about the use of the condom in a homosexual act which is already immoral and anthropologically debilitated as self-gift (there can be no gift in the homosexual act since it cannot be received qua sexual), but now tending toward the “good” by avoiding the transmission of AIDS to another. It is an incipiently “good” act because there is conformity of condom use with the constitutive metaphysics of created person imaging the divine Persons as gift. The gift is not the homosexual act qua sexual, but the use of the condom as protection against AIDS. It is here, in this context of turning the person away from self toward a concern for another, where it is possible to make the moral qualification of “good.” Hence, Benedict remarks: “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.”

It is important to note that the pope refers to “recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed” which (awareness) accrues to the experience of the self as transcending self. The self is not the Cartesian consciousness, but real being, and the experience of the self going out of self for another – in this case with the use of the condom for the sake of the other - is a new kind of experience for persons turned back on self. It is a new kind of consciousness or awareness that become attitude[9]. This outward turn – “a first assumption of responsibility” – can be the “way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.” If there is growth in concern for the other in deeds, there will be a growth in the experience of self-transcendence, and with it a concomitant growth in the awareness of what is truly human in sexuality.

Benedict’s Goal: Awakening Consciousness to the Development of Vatican II

Benedict is working with an anthropology distinct from the received Greek-Stoic anthropology of substance/accident, and with an epistemology of consciousness that is distinct from a “conceptually articulated knowing.”[10] Reality for Benedict XVI is the Word of God,[11] and knowledge comes from hearing the Word and acting on it. The Word of God is a divine Person Who is relation to the Father, and like being known by like,[12] the one hearing the Word must also become relation.[13] Consequently, what is scored as an immoral action within a substantial-conceptual horizon, continues to be an immoral action. But there is a deeper metaphysical anthropology at work that sees who one is, coming as a result from what one does. It is possible to perform an intrinsically immoral homosexual action while at the same time attempting to “humanize” oneself by living a concern for another by the use of a condom. From the point of view of the sodomized act as the action of an in-itself substance, and conscience as the act of conceptual judgment, it is an immoral act under the rubric of attempting a sexual action that contradicts the nature of the human person toward mutual love and procreation. From the point of view of the human person as a constitutively relational image of God destined to make the gift of self, the use of the condom to inhibit the spread of AIDS that one may be infected with, can be “a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.”

Clearly, the pope has startled everyone with this relatively low-profile disclosure. But, as I am suggesting, there is more hidden here than the condom issue. What is hidden is the entire epistemological shift of the Second Vatican Council from objectified knowing of “truths” to an experiential (and therefore realist and “objective”) knowing of the subject as receiver and doer of the Word. And what is hidden in this recovery of the metaphysical anthropology of Vatican II and its concomitant epistemology is the entrance into overcoming the sly atheism that is camouflaged under the regnant positivism of scientific and technological progress. In a word, Benedict XVI, as was John Paul II, is determined recover and rehabilitate reason by showing that reason cannot be restricted to knowing “things” stored away in data bases as a pseudo-wisdom prone to sag and wilt under the weight of “facts.”[14] Reason must be restored to the experience of God through the experience of the self as believer. It is in this sense that faith restores reason, not by providing new supernatural “facts,” but by enabling reason to experience the deeper reality of being as self-transcendent “I” in the reception of the Word of God.

Keynote Address to the National Catholic Bioethics Center (1991): Conscience and Truth.[15]

Concretely, Benedict offers a telling description of this in a 1991 address to the American Bishops. In the address “Conscience and Truth,” he offers his consternation at remarks of fellow student theologians in Germany over the accepted scholastic interpretation of conscience as capable of invincible ignorance. For example, it was held that perhaps Hitler and Stalin could be invincibly ignorant of the evil they had perpetrated and we would all be merrily in heaven with them because they simply did not realize what they were doing in the personal and historical milieu in which they were acting.

Benedict sensed something profoundly wrong with this abstract view of conscience which he deepened with his study of the Fathers of the Church and contrasted it with the Greek metaphysic of substance and its concomitant epistemology of conceptual knowing. He discovered that there were two theories of conscience working on two distinct anthropological and epistemological levels: 1) conscience as a conceptual act of judgment concerning states of affairs in the light of a rational nature situated in a substantialist anthropology; and 2) conscience as an experiential memory of the self which “he calls “anamnesis” (consciousness) that is embedded in the ontological structure of the self as “ontological tendency… toward the divine.”

1) The first, he accuses of “not insignificantly contribut(ing) to the diminution of the concept of conscience. Saint Thomas, for example, designates only this [first]….level as a conscientia. For him it stands to reason that conscience is not a habitus, that is a lasting ontic quality of man, but actus, an event in execution. Thomas, of course, assumes as given the ontological foundation of anamnesis (synderesis). He describes anamnesis as an inner repugnance to evil and attraction to the good.

“The act of conscience applies this basic knowledge [conceptual principles] to the particular situation. It is divided, according to Thomas, into three elements… according to the Aristotelian tradition’s model of deductive reasoning.”[16]

It is obvious that Benedict is placing a conceptually expressed “conscience” that is based on the experience of the senses and abstraction therefrom in contrast with a “conscience” that is a consciousness resulting from the experience of the self as a being transcending (going out of) self.

2) Concerning this second understanding of conscience, Benedict quotes Augustine: “‘We could never judge that one thing is better than another, if a basic understanding of the good had not already been instilled in us.’ This means that the first so-called ontological level of the phenomenon conscience consists in the fact that something like an original memory of the good and true (they are identical) has been implanted in us, that there is an inner ontological tendency within man, who is created in the likeness of God, toward the divine. From its origin, man’s being resonates with some things and clashes with others. This anamnesis of the origin, which results from the god-like constitution of our being, is not a conceptually articulated knowing, a store of retrievable contents. It is, so to speak, an inner sense, a capacity to recall, so that the one whom it addresses, if he is not turned in on himself, hears its echo from within, He sees: That ‘s it! That is what my nature points to and seeks.” [17]

The large point that Benedict is making is that conscience, at its depths, is not a “conceptually articulated knowing” from which we could “retrieve” concepts of “good” or “bad.” This has always been the point of incomprehension between a realist ethic and the idealism of the Enlightenment. A metaphysic of substance and an epistemology built on sense experience and abstraction could never give an experiential account of the moral categories of good and evil. The challenge that “ought” cannot be derived from “is” has always been the bone caught in its throat. But things change radically if the realist ontology is the very self of the agent that is not reducible to an idealist consciousness but is the “ontological tendency within man, who is created in the likeness of God, toward the divine,” and when experiencing itself as being, is a consciousness of the real. We would then be dealing with a moral theology based on the realism of being – the human person as image of the divine Relations - that is constitutively dynamic and conscious of the good and the bad insofar as the relationality is actively in tact. That is, good is the relation of self-gift. It cannot be merely assumed as Benedict describes Thomas as so doing. The relation as ontological tendency can be aided and abetted or thwarted and dumbed-down. Thus, bad or evil is the turning back on self and withdrawal within the self. The former is the ontologically based experience of the good. The latter is the ontologically based experience of evil. The experience that is in play here is of the self as ontological image. But we are more or less dynamized in the image according as we freely comply with it. And we therefore are more or less conscious of the good or the bad according to our ontological compliance.

In the interview, Benedict is pointing to the condom, not as having any moral relevancy in the rightness or wrongness of a sexual act, but as a gesture of giftedness to another that could enhance the ontological status of relation and possibly begin a process of enlightenment in consciousness that is directly affected by such an experience. That is, it could be the beginning of not being turned in on himself and, as he said in 1991, being able to hear “its echo from within” and seeing: “That ‘s it! That is what my nature points to and seeks.” He is saying the same thing now in 2010, but in terms of the beginnings of reconstituting one’s being as relation, not about a conceptual evaluation – such as having a “right intention”[18] - that is based on a non-relational metaphysic of substance. Conscience needs to be enlightened by the giving of the self. The more one is gift (like divine Person), the more one understands what is the good (like divine Person[19]). One needs to power the metaphysics of the self by concrete actions in order to turn up the volume of conscience as an inner sense that hears the ontological echo from within: That’s it! Or, that’s not it!

Benedict concluded that if one could say that Hitler or Stalin were ignorant at the time of the mass killings, and therefore innocent because they were working with an invincibly erroneous conscience at that time, that ignorance was not necessarily invincible. He concedes that, indeed, “No one may act against, as St. Paul had already said (Romans 14, 23). But this fact – that the conviction a person has come to certainly binds in the moment of acting – does not signify a canonization of subjectivity. It is never wrong to follow the convictions one has arrived at – in fact, one must do so. But is can very well be wrong to have come to such askew convictions in the fitrst place, by having stifled the protest of the anamnesis of being.

“The guilt lies then in a different place, much deeper – not in the present act, not in the present judgment of conscience, but in the neglect of my being that made me dear to the internal promptings of truth. For this reason, criminals of conviction like Hitler and Stalin are guilty. These crass examples should not serve to put us at ease but should rouse us to take seriously the earnestness of the plea, ‘Free me from my unknown guilt’ (Psalm 19, 13).”[20]

By way of conclusion, I suggest that this is what Benedict is doing with the condom remark. He has startled everyone with a change in perspective assuming that he is speaking about morality. In reality he is speaking about the very meaning of the human person as image of God, and, when all is said and done, he is speaking about the rehabilitation of the human person in overcoming a sub-human and banalized sexuality. He is ultimately talking about holiness. He is not speaking about morality, and it is for this reason that he can suggest the use of the condom as an act of kindness even within the context of an immoral act.

Rev. Robert A. Connor

330 Riverside Dr.

New York, N.Y. 10025

Tel. (212) 222 3285.

[1] Benedict XVI, “Light of the Word,” A Conversation with Peter Seewald, Ignatius (2010) 118-119.

[2] Ibid 193.

[3] Ibid. 193-194.

[4] Ibid 119.

[5] Ibid 169.

[6] Benedict XVI, “Caritas in Veritate,” #53.

[7] Benedict XVI Sixth European Symposium of University ProfessorsWidening the Horizons of Rationality” 7 June 2008.

[8] Karol Wojtyla wrote: “If we study the Conciliar magisterium as a whole, we find that the Pastors of the Church were not so much concerned to answer questions like ‘What should men believe?, ‘What is the real meaning of this or that truth of faith?’ and so on, but rather to answer the more complex question: ‘What does it mean to be a believer, a Catholic and a member of the Church?’” Sources of Renewal Harper and Row, (1979) 17. He then commented: “A ‘purely’ doctrinal Council would have concentrated on defining the precise meaning of the truths of faith, whereas a pastoral Council proclaims, recalls or clarifies truths for the primary purpose of giving Christians a life-style, a way of thinking and acting;” Ibid 18. In a word, the Second Vatican Council experienced a paradigm shift from an objectified knowing to an experience and consciousness of the believer as subject, and thus was categorized as “pastoral.” As such it represented a profound realist and intellectual development, and was described by Benedict XVI as awaiting its “hermeneutic of continuity;” Address to the Roman Curia, December 22, 2005.

[9] Since Vatican II can be characterized epistemologically as the turn from object to subject, this “enrichment of faith” which consists in working in the horizon of the “I” as gift (and for which the Council has been called “Pastoral”), has the double dimension (as described in Gaudium et spes #24) of “finding self by the sincere gift of self.” The gift of self becomes an “attitude” of self-transcendence/self-gift, and the “finding self” is the consciousness of being “another Christ.” Wojtyla divided his “Sources of Renewal” into these two categories: attitude – consciousness and subsumed the entire Vatican Council under those two rubrics.

[10] J. Ratzinger, “Conscience and Truth,” On Conscience, Ignatius (2007) 32.

[11] Benedict XVI, Keynote Address to the Synod on The Word of God, October 6, 2008.

[12] Benedict uses this epistemological principle in his “Thesis 3,” “Behold the Pierced One,” Ignatius (1986) 25.

[13] Cf. J. Ratzinger, “Behold the Pierced One,” Thesis 3, Ignatius (1986) 25-27.

[14] John Paul II, “Faith and Reason,” #5: “reason…has wilted under the weight of so much knowledge and little by little has lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights, not daring to rise to the truth of being.”

[15] J. Ratzinger, On Conscience “Conscience and Truth” Ignatius (2007) 11-41.

[16] Ibid 37

[17] Ibid. 32.

[19] “No one is good but only God” (Mk. 10, 18).

[20] Ibid. 38.

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