AP at odds with reality over condoms.

Sometimes a facepalm is the best first reaction.

Sometimes a facepalm is the best first reaction.

They must get a kick out of their power.

Bertolt Brecht once said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” News reporting is clearly an artform for some.

The writers and editors at AP took fifteen minutes, max, to find some quotes that at least obliquely fit into their story, then they throw in some others from respectable-enough sounding institutions, insinuate their own “reporting” of facts and missing facts and “no-comments” into the flow such that it seems to be a legitimate interpretation of the facts, then laugh into their sleeves as the institution they’ve targeted scrambles to undo the damage their “story” has caused.

There’s a special place in Purgatory for people like that.

This morning brings another breathless report from the AP which was given the headline, “Conservatives at odds with Vatican over condoms” !!!!!!  ! !. ….

Natch, that’s hardly the case. It’s like they’re shaking the ant farm just to watch the ants go nuts. Let’s try to untangle this piece of “reporting.”

Problem 1: They quote John Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, saying, “It’s a mess…I’m not ready to say that the pope said what Lombardi said.”

Rev. Frederico Lombardi, papal spokesman, said something about what the pope actually said about condom usage in his new book, Light of the World, also applies to women and even transsexuals.

Analysis: Even if we accept that the pope said what Lombardi suggests, there’s no problem: no matter who the person is, if they work as a prostitute and decide to begin using a prophylactic out of a desire to reduce the risk of HIV infection, that represents on their part a movement toward a more human way of experiencing sexuality. It doesn’t represent a moral present, but a movement toward a moral future.

Problem 2: The story says:

The pope did not suggest using condoms as birth control, which is banned by the Roman Catholic Church, and said condoms were not a “real or moral solution” to the AIDS crisis.

Still, his remarks were a watershed in the long debate among theologians and church officials over the morality of using condoms for disease prevention.

Analysis: No, it wasn’t a watershed moment. He said nothing that changes anything. He said a person who is committing, if you will, two gravely immoral actions, but who chooses to reduce the risk of commiting one of them, is not thereby legitimized in the continuing immorality of that action, or of the unabated immorality of the other.

Problem 3: They report:

Jenn Giroux, executive director of Human Life International America, which promotes Catholic teaching on contraception, abortion and other moral issues, said more clarification from the Vatican was needed.

“I am watching very carefully, as everyone is right now, before making a final pronouncement,” said Giroux, a registered nurse and mother of nine. “We just got something from a spokesperson. As always, we look to church doctrine on statements like this.”

Analysis: That looks to me like her saying a whole lotta nothing. “We’re not saying anything.” “We’re waiting for the actual authorities to act.” “This was just something from a spokesperson, not the real McCoy.” And, importantly, “Church doctrine reigns.” But since the reality of what “Church doctrine” is doesn’t resonate with AP reporters, that last was undoubtedly seen by them as a retreat by an ignorant footsoldier who is waiting for orders, whatever they may be, rather than her taking the strongest position one can take vis-a-vis questions of Church teaching.

Problem 4: My personal favorite: “Catholic teaching has never totally barred condom use for protection against HIV and the Vatican has no official, authoritative policy on the issue.”

Analysis: The Vatican also “has never totally barred,” in the manner they mean those words, smashing your neighbor’s pumpkins at Halloween. Sure it’s generally covered under a one or more of those Commandments, but there’s no doctrinal statement on pumpkin smashing… so I guess it’s fair game then? Hardly.

Problem 5: They report:

In 1987, the U.S. bishops’ conference issued the statement, “The Many Face of AIDS,” that stressed limiting sex to marriage as the best protection against the virus, but said public education “could include accurate information about prophylactic devices” to prevent transmission. The document was criticized at the time by conservatives and some Vatican officials.

Analysis: First of all, the USCCB is not an authoritative body of the Church. They can certainly seem that way to outsiders, and they can certainly muddy the waters of teaching clearly when they are more Bernardin than Dolan.  But educating the public with accurate information is a fairly important task, provided it is accurate and complete information. And in this case, accurate and complete information about condom usage in the prevention of the spread of HIV would have been, basically, “it’s a false solution.” Which is what Benedict said in his remarks also.

Problem 6: They report: “Years ago, Vatican officials reportedly began studying the topic, with the goal of writing a document on the morality of condom use as protection against AIDS, but no statement was issued.”

Analysis: This is akin to problem 4, above. They insinuate a lacuna in Church teaching, combine it with the media-generated confusion, and voila! the suggestion that the impermissible is at least somewhat permissible has been born in the reader’s mind.

Problem 7: They then wrap up with some of the best stuff, but cast in a shroud of doubt and reaction:

The pope’s comments in a book interview do not amount to an official teaching, a point conservative Catholics made repeatedly and vociferously Tuesday. They argued that the pope was only noting that by using a condom, a person with HIV is displaying some moral sense about the consequences of his behavior.

“I maintain that nothing new has happened, that the church’s teaching hasn’t changed,” said the Rev. Joseph Fessio of Ignatius Press, the English publisher of the book, in a phone interview from Rome.

Yet, the pope’s remarks are still seen as significant and must be analyzed and explained by church leaders.

Analysis: It looks like they took a statement from Father Fessio that came later in the interview, after he had made the compelling arguments, explained everything clearly, and was fielding questions, and, with all the context of the teaching of the Church preceding his statement, he said, “I maintain…”…   of course, without the context, it looks like he’s just voicing his personal opinion and not offering any context or background or reason, and thus his “I” makes his position a bit weak.

Ending: They close with a good wrap-up by Russell Shaw:

“We’re in for a long period of confusion,” said Russell Shaw, a writer for the Catholic publication Our Sunday Visitor and former spokesman for the U.S. bishops’ conference. “The bishops — and clergy especially — will have to go home now to their own dioceses and whether they like it or not start speaking very clearly about what just happened.”

Hear, hear.

We get a season of confusion, the AP gets another laugh at our expense, watching us dance and scramble about, while they completely ignore the parts of the explanation that show their “reporting” to be more an attempt to craft reality than to report it.



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  • John

    The pope’s comments aren’t even open to misinterpretation as I read them. This is one of those stories that is almost completely fabricated by the media. The AP seems to be on the front line of this.

    But of course everyone is lapping it up because they want to believe it’s true.

  • Vermont Crank

    The Pope erred in feeding the Media and it is now the job of the Laity to pick up this latest Magisterial-Made Cross and bare it in public.

    Gee, thanks; Pope.

    I mean, it is not as though we don’t already have enough Crosses to bear without Our Holy Father – and his paper and his mouthpiece – muddying the pellucid Doctrinal Truth of Catholic morality with this ill-advised response to questioning from a friend.

    Mr. Crowe did not quote Germain Grisez,” a prominent moral theologian who advises bishops, said that promoting condoms as protection against disease would be “pernicious” because it assumes a person does not have the capacity to make good, moral choices. He lamented that the pope’s comments “can be — and are being — misused to sow doubt about Catholic teaching.”

    “Many of Jesus’ own sayings were misused, and he no doubt foresaw that they would be misused. But he nevertheless said what he thought would lead to salvation those who were open to his teaching,” Grisez wrote in an e-mail. “I assume that Pope Benedict’s intention in speaking out as he does is similar to Jesus’ intention. But Benedict’s judgment about what to say may not be as sound as Jesus’ judgment was.”

    This was a dangerous moral minefield the Pope decided to publicly walk through and the resulting explosion has already unnecessarily resulted in far too much direct and collateral damage.

    Knowing that our enemies – The World, The Flesh, and The Devil – have long hungered for any moral casuistric situation they could exploit to their advantage the question must be asked about what the Pope accomplished by feeding the enemy; Cui Bono?

    Not The Catholic Church.

    I wish The Holy Father had not decided to delve further into this condom quandary after he had made this crystal clear statement last year – when he was speaking about AIDS: He said it (AIDS)was “a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems”.

    • Tom Crowe

      Vermont Crank, I’ll give you this: your name is apt, provided you live in Vermont. You also fail the reading comprehension test. You are committing the exact same mistake as every one of these reporters and are exacerbating the issue. You are the reason the editors and writers at the AP are laughing into their sleeves, because you are getting your what-nots in a bind over the media-generated maelstrom and criticizing, rather than supporting, the pope. Your criticism does not help the situation at all, and if you’re not helping, you’re hurting. Please stop that. The pope said no such thing as what he is being portrayed to have said. Dr. Grisez’s opinion on the prudence of the pope’s comments are his opinion, and he’s entitled to it. Having studied at Mount Saint Mary’s and becoming not just a little acquainted with Dr. Grisez, I can say that he would certainly recognize and agree with the point the pope was making, even if he thinks the pope could have used a different example or stated it a little differently (which is a far cry from saying, “he shouldn’t have said ANYTHING,” which seems to be your solution). The only controversy is that which was generated by the media, and perpetuated by people like you. Either start helping explain to the world why they are missing the truth of the message the pope was conveying, or stop commenting on it. Dissension doesn’t help anyone except the forces of the Father of Lies and the only dissension here comes from those who push the ignorant, possibly malicious, meme that what the pope said was controversial or problematic.

      • silvina

        coulnd’t agree more.

      • Eric E

        With all due respect, I am not a crank, or even a traditionalist, and I think Crank has a certain point. What the pope said was badly worded and not at all transparent, assuming it was translated correctly. (The meaning of “basis” seems to be problematic to me.) In general his prose is turgid and abstruse. If he wrote clearly and concisely for the common man rather than those with doctorates we’d all be better off.

        I would have said “Condom use, such as the case of a prostitute, may be an encouraging sign in an individual of an awakening conscience” or something like that. The problem is the word “basis” sounds a lot like “is justified by”, and “direction of moralization” is too unclear — what’s being moralized, condom use or the prostitute? It’s too confusing. The pope has to share some blame for this.

        • Tom Crowe

          Eric E– This pope writes and speaks and thinks more clearly than almost anyone I’ve ever read with his level of intelligence. Have you read Deus Caritas Est? Spe Salvi? Amazing encyclicals and eminently readable. You may quibble with his use of “basis,” but the misinterpretation of that word started with the media, especially since that for which it is a basis is instructive: “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization.” Break that down and it’s simple… You know what? I’m going to make that the next post. We’re all talking about this issue, but we’re not actually examining the word usage and structure of the sentence. I think that’s warranted. See you in that post, I’m sure.

  • Arnobius of Sicca

    This is a good assessment of the media misrepresentation of this whole story. Unfortunately I fear that people will simply hear what they want to hear and ignore the truth, using their misinterpretation of the incident without considering the problem of their own error.

    It’s quite a pain. Yes I recognize L’Osservatore Romano opened this can of worms, but I doubt it would have gotten so far without ill will from the media.

  • Jason

    lol @ ur response tom. “basic reading comprehension skills”. great post btw. i like the play by play analysis

  • marv!!!

    The Pope stated that condom use was acceptable to reduce the spread of the HIV virus. That’s wonderful and hopefully a sign that changes are coming, slowly but surely. Thank-you Pope Benedict. Your statement will save millions of lives.

    • Tom Crowe

      I’m laughing at this, because I know you only wrote it to further poke the caged animal.

    • Tom Crowe

      Unless, of course, you actually believe that, erm, “interpretation,” in spite of all evidence, logic, syntax, follow-up statements, and basic reading comprehension skills to the contrary. In that case you’re being obstinate.

    • Bruce

      Hello Marv. Where did the Pope say that condom use was acceptable?

    • JoAnna

      Go go Gadget reading comprehension!

      I’m with Bruce — where did the Pope say that?



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