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The Pope's Rhetorical Suicide Through Nuance

Hang with me for a moment.

I went hunting this past weekend. In order to be safe from being mistaken for an animal, the prey, hunters are encouraged or even required to wear a bright orange color. This wise safety measure, of course, assumes that all the other hunters in the woods are not color blind.

Now if you know in advance that all the other hunters are color blind, you have no one else to blame but your self when you end up shot.

Translation? You don't speak French to a bunch of neanderthals and expect NOT to be clubbed.

This is what happened to the Vatican press machine this past weekend with the "Pope approves condoms" story. Actually, this is what always happens to the Vatican press machine.

Let's face it. The press getting this story wrong is the expected outcome but yet again the Vatican press office was caught flat footed. Yes, they issued a statement that, while correct, is written in the same language of nuance that got them in trouble in the first place.

I must admit that the whole thing has me scratching my head. The question I keep coming back to is "why?" Why did the Pope try to make this VERY nuanced point when it is obvious to even the most casual observer that the media would get this wrong? Did this nuanced point about male prostitutes really have to be made? I mean, have male prostitutes sworn off condoms because the Pope says they are wrong? Why? Why this point?

I cannot help but wonder if the Pope's inner egg-head got the better of him here. In a way, I feel like the Pope wandered into the woods on the first day of hunting season while trying to make a point detailing the different kinds of rods and cones involved in color-blindness. It is just not the time or place to be making this point.

And then the Holy See press office. Somebody over there coulda shoulda known what was contained in this interview and anticipated the blowup. The whole reason you have a press office is so that you can be ahead of these kind of stories rather than being reactive. Extending my lame hunting analogy, it seems that the press office tells all of the color blind hunters "Hey, I think I saw something move over there!" And then claims "How was I supposed to know?"

Doesn't anybody over at the Vatican, from the Pope on down, know how this works?

Listen up!!! The press doesn't do nuance!

When will they get this through their pointy hats?

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Craig Dennis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Blackrep said...

Well, the Universal Church doesn't do nuance well either, especially if the Pope calls it the "first step" of some kind of moral awakening.

I am bemused at the way you spin this as if the Pope's "inner egg head" led to this mess, as if he is so SMART that he's led the sheep into mass confusion. I guess we just pray for a much stupider Pope then? Some simpleton who just tells us not to use condoms or sodomize each other or we'll go to hell? Lord, give us some poor booby who is incapable of 300 page opaque phenomenological tomes of vague status that deliver who-knows-what with the latest European zeitgeist. Lord knows that kind of crap has done such wonders for the Church in the past 30 years, but a little less "nuance" please.

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

I have a lot of sympathy with the Pope, here.

One of the biggest things my folks taught me is when to tell the truth, even though it will cause trouble, and when to hold my tongue even though someone will take it wrongly.

Anything can be taken as totally out of context as this. I do sort of wish he'd chosen something a bit less exploitable, but oh well.

Red Cardigan said...

Patrick, Jesus caused a lot of consternation by speaking to and dining with tax collectors and prostitutes. He, of course, cared about saving them, not about how His enemies were going to spin His efforts (let alone how much eye-rolling was going on among His friends).

Today, just *mentioning* the possibility that a male prostitute might develop enough of a conscience not to want to risk killing the people he's being paid to sodomize--though, as the pope further points out, that faint beginning of morality is ultimately a step in the wrong direction, not the right one--is enough to send the media into a tizzy (let alone faithful Catholics who ought to be an audience for nuance, if there ever was one).

But I suppose as long as the pope isn't trying to save tax collectors, too, we should let the eye-rolling festivities continue unabated...

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

it's worth noting that the Pope's WORDS are what are being considered, and a small portion of them at that, rather than his actions. Actions vs words are a big deal.

Anonymous said...

I don't have a degree in theology, but I read the full answer by the pope and I think that he is perfectly clear...and seems to be teaching what the church has always taught in his matter.
The problem was that L'Osservatore Romano didn't show the full quote. Within hours, the rest of the quote was revealed in numerous places, causing many periodicals to adjust their original reports (NYT and Telegraph etc.)
I think that everyone really needs to calm down about this...and trust Benedict. He is worthy of our trust.
I am looking forward to reading the book in it's entirety!

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

Sorry to respond so many times in a short time... the power of snark compels me.

The problem was that L'Osservatore Romano


I'm really, really tired of having to deal with L'ORo doing something stupid and it being presented to me as the Pope's unopposable statement. (Simpson. Nuff said.)

Stella Oriens said...

The Pope didn't make a single misstep. Had L'ORo kept their idiot mouths shut and let the publishers go right ahead with their carefully laid plans, things would have sailed.

But no, they had to go from being a respected Vatican trumpet to "relevant", "modern" useful IDIOTS.

Someone needs to go in there and fire them. Fire their incompetent Italian arses, and replace them with an American or two - the Lord Himself said we need to be as shrewd as serpents, and nobody does that like Americans.

Michelle Therese said...

Here's a disturbing thought: what if the "Vatican Press" desired this exact outcome? Does it strike anyone else as sketchy that *this* one particular section of a **book long** interview was "leaked" to the rabid secular press. The same secular press that has been fanning the flames of hatred against Catholics for decades?
Things that make you go hmmmmmmm...

Anonymous said...

Papa Benedict made no error here at all. Pray for his protection as the spirit of this age despises him and the Church over which he is the earthly head.

Let us also pray that those within the ranks of the Vatican Press who are not obedient to the Spirit of God be removed...and replaced by those who ARE.


Scott said...

I'll second Michelle's sentiment. Patrick, you talk as if the Holy Father has great support among his charges at the Vatican. Clearly he could benefit from a little bit more of the political paranoia of his predecessor.

JPac said...

The Pope spoke clearly in this long interview, where he took many breaks for prayer before he answered some questions.

Catholics should not be afraid to deal with the aftermath of this opinion of the Holy Father. It offers opportunity to speak further on individual "moralizing". If Catholics want to be smart about it, they could capture the secular world and speak out about the evolving moral character of individuals. Catholics should speak louder about the "moralizing" phrase than the "pope said male prostitute can use condoms" phrase.

I read his comment as hopeful. Hope that persons who are knowingly engaging in behavior may be fatal could, by using condoms, prolong their own life and the life of others whereby they will both have a greater chance at drawing closer to God and further from the sinful lifestyle they are engaged in. Dead people can't become more moral. Living sinners can sin less and less over time.

Rick said...

Pope: You have to stop this sinful way of life.
Buck (male whore): I won't.
Pope: But you have AIDS. You'll infect others.
Buck: The chance they take.
Pope: Can you at least wear a condom?

Arnobius of Sicca said...

The Church has been constantly misrepresented and have had its teachings distorted by people who want to justify their own ideology. It isn't new with this book. Look at how the Pope's brilliant "Caritas in veritate" was distorted by people who were reading it with the intent of finding material to justify their own views. For that matter we could point to St. Pius X and his "Lamentabili sane" which certain Modernists distorted to justify themselves, or certain southern Catholics in the civil war denying that the Church denunciation of slavery was anything more than the denunciation of the slave trade.

Even though the Press Office handled this badly, I believe the problem was bad will on the part of the media and dissenters and not obscure language on the part of the Pope.

Anonymous said...

It is time we stop worrying about the press and what "they" might say. The secular press will always be the enemy of truth in matters of religion, either throught maliciousness or ignorance. But the Pope cannot, and the Church, cannot let them be the censors of what is said and proclaimed. Do not many bishops, for instance, decide on matters of discipline based,not on what is right, but based on what "the press" may or may not say? Enough already.

Anonymous said...

I was going to add something insightful, but everything has already been said. Just a pithy rephrase then: The Church's role is not to look good in the eyes of the world, but in the eyes of God, and therefore, to speak the truth always.

Patrick Archbold said...

Speaking the truth is all fine and dandy. Wouldn't have it any other way.

Always having to issue a clarifying press release 24 hours later, not so fine and dandy.

Speaking so as not to be misunderstood has its merits too folks. Gotta know your audience.

Brian Walden said...

Rick, I don't think the pope ever said something similar to "Can you at least wear a condom?" I think that would be sinful - it's implicitly advocating the sinful act in which the condom is used. Instead he said that someone in that situation who chooses to wear a condom may be taking a small step changing their conscience if they do so for a selfless reason.

There's a subtle but very important difference between saying "If hypothetical situation X, then we may be able to infer Y" and advocating "If you're going to do X, then at least do Y" - the latter is, for example, what's wrong with sex education in most public schools.

Rick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Renee said...

I think the Pope's example is analogous to those who argue for clean needle exchanges for heroin addicts. The goal isn't to keep them on heroin, rather to care for their well being as a first step to get them off their addiction. In the example of male prostitutes we are dealing with a population, already victimized. They may be victims of human trafficking or addicted to drugs themselves. While we want to prevent the spread of HIV, there is a larger goal to help these individuals.

Christina said...

Pope: You have to stop this sinful way of life.
Man: I won't.
Pope: But you have AIDS. You'll infect others.
Man: I wear a condom to protect them.
Pope: If they are worth being protected from AIDS, why not other diseases, why not emotionally?
Man: Good point, they deserve better than this.
Pope: Just like you deserve better as well.
Man: ...maybe.

The Pope said it might be a starting point for moral awareness. The act of putting on a condom does something to ruin the sexual act, and it's felt intrinsically.

Maybe this would awake questions of "why am I protecting myself and others during this intimate act? If they are worth protecting, are they not worth being given true love? Am I worth more than this?"

This doesn't condone condoms at all, it only says that there is some moral compass in the person choosing to use it to protect another.

Anonymous said...

Interesting take, Pat.

I always enjoy your points of view, esp. at the Register.

Nicholas Jagneaux said...


Excellent comment. Thank you.

Lori said...

The real question is: why are the Italian and English translations so different? And why are both different from the original German? Do the translators have agendas of their own? Or was it the agenda of someone in the Vatican?

More here


Anonymous said...

Some Conservative Reactions have shown little capacity for nuance either.

RobKPhD said...

Patrick, I offer this as a long time fan of CMR. I hope that you do not think that the Pope should not speak truth, however nuanced it actually is, because the press doesn't get it. My friend, I think it is the job of those who have the talent to deal with the press take them to task (ahem, that means folks like you). This allows actual conversation to happen.

Frankly, the Pope speaks the truth, and it is lost on those who want to err on either side. It is for those who know to now help the rest. At least that is my perspective.

This very post has conversation going. The only problem I see, is the original critique of the Holy Father and the Vatican. Otherwise, I say, Bravo for taking the dolts who misinterpret to task.

Anonymous said...

Just because the press doesn't do nuance, doesn't seem to be a good reason for the Pope (or the Catholic Church generally) not to do nuance.

Nuance is why I'm a Catholic and not a blinkered fundamentalist.

Nuance is why I'm a Catholic and not a blinkered atheist.

Nuance is why I'm a Catholic and not a gutless agnostic.

Nuance is why I love Papa Benedict.

Nuance is why I love St Therese of Lisieux.

Nuance is why I love the Angelic Doctor.

Long live nuance and long live the Pope.

Anonymous said...

"And then the Creative Minority Report press office. Somebody over there coulda shoulda known what was contained in this blog post and anticipated the blowup."

Jack B said...

Some make it sound as if the Pope accidentally ran into one of those hunters you mention, who surprised him with a long list of questions that happened to be in his pocket that day. Was there no preparation? Thomas Peters has noted the international hordes that have worked for months preparing to introduce the book. Did no one bother to read it as publishers religiously do? It's unfair this time to pick on just the Vatican press office and L'Osservatore Romano. Their frequent utter disregard for the recipients on the other end of a communication has apparently spread widely.

One notable point is that nothing to date in connection with the Pope's male prostitute example limits the gender of the prostitutes's customers. Many commenters have guessed, assumed, or otherwise intuited what the Pope should have said when he knew he was being interviewed for publication. He presumably knows that male prostitutes, depending on the individual, may have male or female clients, any of whom are subject to receiving or transmitting HIV. If preventing the spread of lethal infection can be a positive factor in assessing morality surrounding condom use, it is difficult to see how one gender can be allowed benefit but not the other. Many questions arise. There is an urgent need to invoke Patrick A.'s 3rd Commandment (11:13AM above).

Father Mark Gurtner, JCL said...

I have to say I have been a little frustrated with the so-called conservative Catholic blogs who are accusing the Holy Father of imprudence in bringing this up at all, as if he does not know what he is doing. He knows exactly what he is doing, and I think in a most fatherly way to the world, he is seeking to bring those who are engaged in such immoral acts as prostitution in lands and communities most plagued with AIDS to at least some level of responsibility for others without compromising in any way the constant teaching of the church against contraception.

As for me, I'm sticking with the Holy Father.

Adam Fischer said...

By the comments your points have obviously all been grossly misunderstood, I'm sorry to hear that. You're absolutely right, this entire media firestorm is of the Vatican's making. The journalist interviewing Pope Benedict asked this question because of the LAST media firestorm over his AIDS and condoms comment. They had to know what his would do! No one ever said we don't want an intelligent, nuanced, Pope. We are simply saying that such an intelligent man shouldn't be this media "stupid." I mean for crying in the sink, they excerpted nuance in the Vatican newspaper! To quote Seth Meyers from SNL. REALLY? Really Vatican? The Pope makes an incredibly nuanced comment regarding a firebrand issue and your way of getting out in front of the issue is through an excerpt? Really?

Anonymous said...

Speaking the truth is all fine and dandy. Wouldn't have it any other way.

Always having to issue a clarifying press release 24 hours later, not so fine and dandy.

Speaking so as not to be misunderstood has its merits too folks. Gotta know your audience."

So your problem is with those voices, not the Pope's, which distort what the Pope said.

First, the title of your post is obviously misleading then. The Pope said what he said because he meant it and was speaking the truth. I would rather him say it (I know my faith better now) and trust me and other believers to defend him in public than for him not to say it fearing misunderstanding.

The fact that people can't understand him is not the Pope's fault. Media is a double-edged sword: it can help immensely in the cause of evangelization, but no matter what one says or does, the media always has the opportunity to misinterpret the information, as it did here.

Of course, the fact that some of the misinterpretation comes from media closest to the Pope is extremely unfortunate.

Still, you seem to consistently take criticism with the "PR" department of the Church. What would such a PR department do exactly? Is it their job to make the Pope and Church look good in the eyes of the world? Or to further the cause of the Church? Sometimes, I would argue, the two are irreconcilable. This was one of those cases.

They attempted to explain what the Pope said and what he meant, but simply fell short, as all men do.

Jack B said...

Correction: My comment at 12:29AM should refer to Dr. Edward Peters at
http://canonlawblog.blogspot.com/2010/11/continuing-mess-at-losservatore-romano.html, not Thomas Peters.

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