Interview: James Carroll

By ADAM REILLY  |  April 1, 2009

So when Pope John XXIII, during the Second Vatican Council, began to take the initiative, then and shortly after, to reaffirm the church's posit on contraception, what was really being reaffirmed was the absolute claim to papal authority. So you have contraception re-condemned in 1968, in the summer of 1968, in the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which Cardinal Ratzinger [now Pope Benedict] actually went so far as to say, in subsequent years, was infallible teaching. So Cardinal Ratzinger is saying that the church's position on contraception, including condom use, is infallible teaching. Therefore, when he becomes pope, Benedict is stuck with this.

What he's responding to, of course, is this world-historical health crisis, HIV-AIDS, which is transmitted thru sexual intercourse. Science has clearly established that prevention of HIV is tremendously enhanced by the use of condoms. And the church can't see its way around this affirmation of papal authority. It shows you the corruption of it, because the consequence of this — especially when the pope goes to Africa and puts it on display — is the deaths of human beings who are infecting each other. Because wherever the church still has influence over the moral decisions people make, infection rates go up. And of course, in Africa, one of the tragedies is that the pope's position plays into the way women are at the mercy of partners who don't want to use condoms. And those partners are reinforced, in their power to refuse to use condoms, by this position of the pope.

This points up the inherently problematic nature of allowing a celibate clergy, and a celibate hierarchy, to instruct the non-celibate on how they should live their lives. It's so counterintuitive.
It's true, and the clerical culture is a problem. We saw that in the priest sex abuse scandal, where the clerical culture closed ranks around abusive priests who were members of it.

But let's be clear here. Human beings are faced with a moral crisis, which is that our traditional categories no longer apply because of technological innovation. So: what is reproduction? There's a quest that human beings didn't have to ask until this generation. We knew, but we don't know anymore. Human reproduction can take place outside the human body. And if you give a high value to the enhancement of future generations of human beings — improving of intelligence, physical health, longevity — well, you can find yourself arguing more and more for what we might call unnatural modes of reproduction. The genome revolution; analysis of DNA; the ability of people to control conception outside the woman's womb — all of these things put before human beings vast moral questions.

The Catholic Church is basically removing itself as a participant in this moral debate, going forward, by just basically saying no to all of it. And why is that happening? it's not happening, I would argue, because of serious moral thinking that's been done about these new technologies. It's mostly taking place because the hierarchy of the church is defending its authority by defending posits that have already been taken. Contraception is the obvious example, but it's not just that.

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