In the spring of 2005, Pope John Paul II died. My father, who passed away that summer, watched the funeral and the coronation of the current pope, Benedict XVI, from his hospital bed. My dad, a Jew, loved the spectacle of it all (the Vatican, he said, was the last institution that "really knows how to dress").
From what he could tell, he liked this new pope too. "We need more rocks in the river," my dad explained. He was saying that change comes so fast, in such a relentless torrent, that we need people and things that stand up to it and offer respite from the current.
I loved the literary quality of the expression "more rocks in the river," even though the imagery doesn't quite convey what my dad really believed. Dad was a conservative, properly understood. By that I mean he didn't think conservatism was merely an act of passive and futile defiance of what Shakespeare called "devouring time." Unlike human institutions, the rocks do not fight the devouring river of time. My dad believed that conservatism was an affirmative act, a choice of prudence and will. In the cacophonous din of perpetual change, the conservative selects the notes worth savoring and repeats them for others to hear and, hopefully, appreciate.
Over the weekend, the media (mis)reported that Benedict had renounced the Roman Catholic Church's longstanding "policy" against condom use. I put "policy" in quotes because the media have a tendency to portray all church positions as if they were like rules for trash pickup; easily changed or abandoned upon papal or bureaucratic whim. That's not how it works.
What Benedict said in a book-length interview is that in certain circumstances, using a condom would be less bad than not using one. To use Benedict's example, a male prostitute with HIV would be acting more responsibly, more morally, if he wore a condom while plying his trade than if he didn't.
The pontiff understands that not all harms are equal. Assault is wrong, for instance, but assault with a deadly weapon is more wrong than assault with a non-deadly one. Recognizing and limiting the harm you do can be the "first step in the direction of a moralization, a first act of responsibility in developing anew an awareness of the fact that not everything is permissible."
Now, I'm not on the same page as the Vatican on all matters of sexuality, never mind theology. But I respect it. And, given the core assumptions of Catholic moral thought, I think Benedict's reasoning is perfectly sound.
But, more relevant, I appreciate the role the church plays in savoring the right notes.
It's a common trope among church critics to glibly suggest that the Vatican has the blood of millions on its hands because it doesn't back condom distribution, particularly in Africa. That is as absurd as it is unprovable. The church's opposition to corruption, ethnic violence and murder are just as pronounced and resolute, and yet such maladies persist in Africa as well. Are we to believe that African male prostitutes — no doubt devout Catholics all — were simply following church doctrine when they declined to use condoms?
Meanwhile, the church does perhaps more than any other institution to aid the sick and feed the hungry in Africa, something you certainly can't say about many of the critics in the Fourth Estate peanut gallery.
As for the church's preferred approach — abstinence until marriage — it may be impractical in most parts of the world, as the critics claim. But it would undeniably save more lives than condom use if put into practice. What seems to offend many isn't the efficacy of the solution but the suggestion that such values have any place in the modern world.
The church's position is that the truest notes are those that not only celebrate life and love but cut through the whitewater racket of devouring time. As those notes become harder to hear, the answer isn't to stop playing them but to turn up the volume.
Perhaps it's the approach of yet another dad-less Thanksgiving — a holiday during which we give thanks for whatever parts of our lives that are set to the music of those true notes — that has set my mind in this direction. But that shouldn't surprise, for he was always the rock in my river.