They were not helped by the claims of some Catholics that Catholic teaching on sexuality was collapsing
Francis Philips got it dead right in her last blog; the pope’s gripping, highly readable and indispensable book The Light of the World (and if you haven’t read it yet you really should) is about a great deal more than just sex.
The extraordinary distortion by the secular Press of his passing remarks about condoms is now generally seen for what it was: a sign of the fact that papers have to have splash headlines; that’s the way they’re designed: hence the Sunday Telegraph’s declaration of a “historic U-turn by [the] Catholic church”. So the secular response is understandable: journalists need stories; it’s not so much that they don’t care about the truth, but that they really aren’t necessarily equipped, in a story about the Church, to recognise it when it’s staring them in the face.
But parallel to this kind of understandable secular distortion, there was a jumping on this particular bandwagon by some Catholics who really didn’t have that kind of excuse. Perhaps the most informative example of the “historic U-turn by Catholic Church” syndrome among Catholic journalists was the Today programme’s “Thought for the Day” on the morning after the Sunday Telegraph splash headline, uttered from on high by Clifford Longley, the BBC’s token “authoritative” Catholic and the elder statesman of the Tabletistas.
What a difference a week or two makes. Longley may already be hoping that his remarks will have been forgotten: but they haven’t, not by me, nor should they be. “The interview [the pope] gave to a German journalist”, he glibly pronounced, “has transformed the terms of the internal Roman Catholic debate about the use of condoms in the fight against Aids HIV”. (Already, very evidently, just wrong). “But”, he went on, astonishingly, “I think he has actually changed much more than that. From today the entire polar icecap of Catholic sexual morality has started to melt”.
We have now reached a level of implausibility which is more than simply jaw-dropping. We need some kind of provisional explanation before going any further, of why Longley should say such a thing, even in the slightly hysterical atmosphere then prevailing. I can only suppose that this total dissolution of Catholic sexual morality is so much what he wants to happen that it clouded his judgement; it wouldn’t be the first time that wishful thinking has caused a radical distortion of Catholic teaching: “the Spirit of Vatican II” is riddled with it.
“Henceforth”, he went on, “the emphasis changes from natural law, which is where the ban on contraception comes from, to what the pope calls ‘the humanising of sexuality’.” But how is that a change of emphasis away from the natural law? The natural law is a body of unchanging moral principles known not from revelation (though parallel to it) but by reason, principles regarded as a basis for all human conduct: for the pope to speak in this way of “the humanisation of sexuality” is simply the understanding of the natural law in particular human circumstances: there is no movement away from natural law—say, to revelation or ecclesial authority; we are still within its ambit. Longley’s “analysis”, in short, is utterly meaningless.
Longley’s explanation of his melting polar icecap is an excellent example of the kind of—to a layman—impressively intellectual sounding but actually totally bogus pronouncement that does nothing to elucidate an argument but which if you’re not attentive allows it to be accepted by default in the mental fog which has descended by the time it has been uttered.
There is a real refusal here to acknowledge the difference between juridical and pastoral discourse. The pope is a teacher of doctrine and the moral law; he is also a pastor: a pastor above all, and perhaps overwhelmingly most importantly, when he speaks directly to his people, as he is clearly doing in this interview—that’s why it’s with a journalist, not a theologian.
What was Longley’s real agenda here? That is the question we need to ask. Why did he try to transmute pastoral remarks about particular human circumstances into quasi-juridical pronouncements universally applicable? Could it be that, thus transformed, such remarks could then be lobbed into the complex web of objective moral teachings which the Church over the centuries has defended, in the hope of causing maximum damage? Who knows? But it looks suspiciously like it to me