Monday, February 22, 2016

Peter and the Chair (on the plane)

In the light of Pope Francis' latest airplane press conference, today's feast of the "Chair of St Peter" offers a good opportunity to reflect on the teaching office of the Pope (which the chair represents). There were two matters brought up on the ride from Mexico that especially lit up the blogosphere: the comments that someone who talks only of building walls "can't be a Christian" and the Pope's rather vague answer when queried about the use of contraception in the light of the devastating birth defects in Brazil that seem to be caused by the Zika virus.

During the pontificate of St John Paul II, we had two and a half decades of a brilliant, media-savvy communicator sitting in that chair of Peter. He was a professor, and used his teaching chair to full advantage. His successor, too, was a professor with a gift for expressing highly nuanced reflections in compact sentences. We got used to treating the Pope like an oracle.

That day on the plane, if Pope Francis was an oracle, it was along the lines of the famous Oracle of Delphi whose pronouncements could be interpreted any number of ways. While Pope Francis emphasized that abortion ("a crime") is never justifiable, he refused to similarly reiterate the Church's teachings on contraception. Indeed, what he emphasized were the exceptions, referring to episodes dating back to his predecessors Pope Paul VI (the Pope of "Humanae Vitae") and Benedict XVI. In both cases, the matter was extremely specific and also quite exceptional. (Benedict's hypothetical case presented a male prostitute using a condom to limit the spread of HIV, demonstrating, Benedict said, a step in the right direction--not a recommended course of action.) Even the most generous interpretations cannot lead to the conclusion that Pope Francis gave his blessing to the use of contraception as an everyday option for couples.

For the rest, we will have to wait for the forthcoming document on the family, the one prepared for by the work of the two last Synods. We're told the release date is March 19, the Solemnity of St Joseph, Husband of Mary.

My own reflections run along these lines:

Brazil's fertility rate 1960-2009.
(You think they don't already use birth control?)
#1: The headlines (and even the question) about Church teachings on contraption and the Zika virus seem to take for granted that those poor, backward Brazilians have no access to birth control. (Isn't that, if not exactly racist, kind of a "classist" assumption?) On the contrary, National Geographic did a story that highlighted how unexpectedly rapid the birth rate decline in Brazil has been. As of 2009, the birth rate was already below replacement. Obviously, Brazilians haven't been waiting for a Pope to offer any input about avoiding pregnancy. Francis knows that. He likely also feels that a frightening crisis is not the best occasion for inviting people to thoughtful consideration of the wisdom of NFP.

#2: Contraception fails. A lot. (This helps keeps Planned Parenthood in business.) Then what?  The immediate call to loosen abortion restrictions in Brazil because of the risk from Zika was appalling and callous. Pope Francis was clearer than ever that abortion is a crime that can never be justified, even in the case of severe birth defects. It may have even been his desire to focus more intently on the evil of abortion that left him almost shrugging off contraception (which people are using anyway).

#3: Zika has been proven to be sexually transmitted. Chemical contraception and surgical devices are not going to stop the spread of the virus. (Then see point #2.) Why, then, is contraception touted as some sort of 100% solution?

#4: There are some indications that the birth defects seen in Brazil may be tied not so much to the Zika virus as to a larvicide which began to be used in Brazil in 2014; prior to that year, cases of microencephaly were nowhere near the seemingly epidemic numbers being seen now. Colombia--where the larvicide is not used--has had similar rates of Zika infection, but without the concurrent rise in microencephaly. We can be pretty certain that even if a link were to be unquestionable, the corporations who pocketed the profits will find a way to suppress the findings. Still, "follow the money" is a good rule of thumb.

#5: Whatever the cause, Brazil is seeing an increase in the number of children born with potentially serious disabilities. What can members of the Church do to to assist families in the care of these fragile members and to support parents who face this unexpected and heartbreaking challenge? (Among other things, I can see new religious communities rise up in mercy to meet this material and spiritual need.)

Worth reading:

John Allen, on the Vatican's generally muted response in situations like this. Allen's article also gives the history behind the opinion credited to Pope Paul VI, which actually dates back to 1961 (before he was Pope) and was issued not by then-Cardinal Montini but a group of three moral theologians.

Amy Welborn, on the "cult of personality" in a culture of instant communication and how this impacts even the way we look to the Pope. (She promises more in today's post, which I have not yet seen.)

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