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Seven quick thoughts on the most recent papal presser

February 18, 2016

Frankly, I don’t know how he does it. When I fly to Europe I have to sleep all the way over.  Not Pope Francis. Anyway, may I offer some comments on some topics mentioned in the latest mid-air papal presser?

1. Pope Paul VI, as I understand it, did approve of religious women threatened by rape using contraceptives. It is obvious, though, that such measures were taken in self-defense against criminal acts and, more importantly, would have occurred outside the context of conjugal relations. Avoiding pregnancy under outlaw circumstances is not only ‘not an absolute evil’, it’s not an evil act at all. I hope that mentioning this unusual episode in a press chat will not contribute unduly to the world’s misunderstanding of the limitations of Paul VI’s position in this case and of the episode’s non-applicability to firm Church teaching on contraception within marriage.

2. An individual becomes “Christian” by, and only by, (valid) baptism. Donald Trump was apparently baptized Presbyterian, which faith community has valid baptism. Donald Trump is, therefore, as a matter of canon law (c. 204), Christian. Trump might be a good Christian or a bad one—I cannot say, and neither can anyone else. Trump might do and say things consistent with Christian values or in contradiction to them, but his status as baptized, and therefore as Christian, is beyond dispute.

3. There is no legitimate “principle” by which a “lesser of two evils” may ever be licitly engaged in. It is fundamental moral theology that even a small evil action may never be licitly engaged in—no matter how much good might seem to result therefrom and no matter how much evil might seem to be avoided thereby. There are, to be sure, principles by which a good or neutral action that has two effects, one good and one evil, might be licitly engaged in under certain circumstances despite the evil effects; and there are principles by which “lesser evils” may be tolerated (not chosen). But parsing these matters accurately and responsibly requires more time than can be devoted to them in a press conference.

4. Abortion (assuming we are talking about doing an action intended to kill a human being prior to birth, and not just suffering ‘abortion’, i.e., miscarriage) is, Francis observed, always evil. Abortion is not, however, “evil” because it is a “crime”. Not all criminal acts are by nature evil and not all evil acts are crimes. Other factors must be considered lest moral principles and legal principles become confused.

5. The Vatican City State, a sovereign nation, has the right to build, and has chosen to surround itself with, a giant wall. Evidently, building or using a national wall is not a non-Christian act nor a stance contrary to Gospel values. The pope’s criticism of building walls on part of a national border is probably better understood as prudential in nature, not principled.

6. It is important (though some might say it is too late) to distinguish between a Catholic’s stance toward “same-sex unions” and that toward “same-sex marriage”. These are not equivalent terms. Legal recognition of “same-sex unions” might be a good idea, a tolerable idea, or a bad idea, but, per se, “same-sex unions” are things over which reasonable minds (including Catholic minds) may differ; in contrast, Catholics may never approve or support “same-sex marriage”, this, upon pain of contradicting infallible Church teaching, if not of committing heresy.

7. The pope said nothing suggesting confusion about “celibacy” and “continence” (c. 277), although the Crux reporter seems to regard the former as another word for the latter. Anyway, I do not know whether there is such a thing as a (priest) who does not have the “friendship of a woman”, but I would not think the “friendship of a woman” is necessary to make a man ‘complete’.

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