Surprise! Surprise! The Pope said something about sex and the secular culture went bonkers. This has happened periodically for 40-plus years — Pope speaks about sex, secularists gnash their teeth — and chances are good it will go on happening farther into the future than anyone can now see.
The occasion for the uproar this time was something Pope Benedict XVI said March 17 on the plane carrying him and a traveling press corps on a weeklong visit to Africa: “You can’t resolve [the AIDS epidemic] with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem.”
Without getting bogged down in technical arguments about the safety and efficacy of condoms in fighting AIDS, I’ll only say that, just on the face of it, the Pope was obviously right. After all, if you really want to halt the spread of AIDS, then you have to halt the behavior that causes it to spread. What’s to argue about?
But of course that isn’t really the issue in this controversy. The real explanation for the outburst of secularist fury that greeted Benedict’s remark lies in its implied challenge to secularist dogma.
I mean the dogma that no one ever under any circumstances can be allowed to question the wisdom, excellence, virtue, merit, and all-round good sense of permissive sex. From that point of view, the beauty of condoms is that they provide a measure of protection against HIV infection, without requiring any further modification of sexual behavior.
Yet the Church does challenge the secularist conventional wisdom about sex. Indeed, it has done so from the start. Sex is a very good thing, it says, but only when and if used within a framework of rational, moral restraint. Otherwise sex is at risk of becoming a destructive force — as in fact has happened in these latter days of Western secularism.
The disastrous consequences of denying this fundamental Christian insight about sex are overwhelmingly apparent today. Yet the secular culture has never chosen to acknowledge them, and — heaven knows! — it isn’t about to do so now.
No doubt the Pope can stand up under the hammering he’s gotten — and can expect to get all over again next time he says something about sex that the secularists don’t like. The backbone issue doesn’t pertain to him but to us. For we are the ones who have to suffer the sneers directed at us by the entertainers, journalists, and chatty academics of our talking heads culture.
And in fact not all Catholics are able to handle this browbeating. More than 40 years ago, for example, many defections occurred in response to the pronouncement by an earlier Pope — Paul VI — that, as the Church had taught all along, artificial birth control was indeed morally wrong. Catholic teaching on sexual morality remains a source of scandal for many of the Church’s nominal members — to say nothing of former members — today.
But take courage. Christianity faced an even tougher challenge two millennia ago in the context of the pagan Roman Empire. Then it had less access to the machinery of opinion formation than it does now. Yet the Church not only survived but prevailed, as it has continued to do amid the ups and downs of history ever since.
Survive and prevail, we believe, the faith will keep on doing until history itself comes to an end. The peculiar secular sexual obsessions of the present day will pass. The understanding of human sexuality proclaimed by the Church will remain. It has the distinct advantage of being true.