On Saturday's Religion page in The Washington Post, they highlighted the typical secular liberal reporter in his natural habitat -- tremendously skeptical of letting religious people play a role in public policy. In a box highlighting the "On Faith" Internet feature of The Washington Post and Newsweek, the magazine's Christopher Dickey was visibly disturbed in answering the question "Do you think the world's biggest problems -- poverty, disease, homelessness -- can be cured by well-intentioned religious believers?" The Post featured this grab:
“Well-intentioned religious believers”? That phrase, I confess, makes me deeply uneasy. In practice the selflessness of such people can be awe inspiring. In horrible conditions, their powerful faith gives them the strength to endure, to comfort, to heal. But at a policy level when they see practical problems through the narrow prism of dogma the results can be shocking.
The example of the Catholic Church, with its vast human resources and intense convictions, is particularly striking. It is committed to honor and preserve life. But how best to do that? General principles are easy enough to pronounce, but specific cases are the source of enormous anger and misunderstanding, both inside and outside the church, and none has been more contentious than Vatican opposition to the use of condoms to fight AIDS.
What follows is less argumentative. Dickey then ventured through a fairly straightforward examination of the Catholic debate over condoms and AIDS, but he's concerned with the idea that Catholic teaching is morally obtuse:
The church preaches abstinence as the best prevention. Many within church organizations contend that condoms give a false sense of security while encouraging dangerous promiscuity. But non-Catholic health workers often regard that position as unconscionable, and see the debate as one in which the theoretical possibility of preventing life with condoms has to be weighed against the statistical probability of losing millions of lives without them.
He adds how UN workers find the male latex condom is the single most effective technology to prevent the sexual transmission of the HIV virus. The implication is that the Church has its head in the clouds while millions die. (The cruder version, accusing Catholic leaders of letting "innocent people die," comes from the "Banning Condoms Kill" campaign from the fraudulent leftist group Catholics For a Free Choice.)
But as might be expected when you let a secular reporter explore his secular perspective in a "Faith" page, there is no real consideration of how the sexual act transmits sin, which for "well-intentioned religious believers," is not merely a question for this world, but for the next. Dickey sees only "practical problems" in need of solutions, and moral judgment has no role to play. In general, the liberal view of AIDS is bureaucratic, institutional, and wholly without a scintilla of expectation of individual moral responsibility.
Religious believers see not only bureaucracy or technology, but start instead with the commandment not to commit adultery. That places the sexual act as acceptable only within a marital context. Catholic teaching is stricter than evangelical teaching on the use of artificial contraception. But as a matter of bureaucracy and technology and "practical problems," is there any doubt that the rise of artificial contraception and the rise of messy sexual "liberation" are related societal trends?
Dickey consulted Thomas Williams, also a favorite expert of NBC News, who is a fairly reliable guide to Catholic teaching and not a Catholic In Name Only expert. But his attempts to explain things to the secular reporter did go awry:
“One fundamental question is whether this is something that is always wrong or not -- what in church lingo we would describe as ‘intrinsically’ evil,” said Williams. “It’s almost counterintuitive, because the church sees no ‘added’ evil with the use of condoms in cases of prostitution, or casual relationships with multiple partners or homosexual relationships. Even though the church would never say this in principle, on a pastoral level anybody would say if you are going to a prostitute, it’s already a moral evil, but use a condom.”
While Father Williams is correct on the academic question, it's highly questionable that "anybody" would say "on a pastoral level" that if you're going whoring, use a condom. Should the sinner in this exercise really feel he's "sinning with a clearer conscience"?
But the crucial point here is than the Catholic Church is mostly involved on the AIDS issue not through lobbying the government to do something, but by actually doing something -- healing or helping the sick. What Dickey's blog post suggests is that he's not only uncomfortable with religious believers solving problems inside government, but outside government as well.
(Hat tip: Dan Gainor, "working at home" on a Saturday.)
UPDATE: See Dickey's recent blog "Give Me That Old Time Secularism," where he complains about "medieval nonsense" in our politics. He also cited this "Line of the Day" from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd:
"The world is globalizing, nuclear weapons are proliferating, the Middle East is seething, but Republicans are still arguing the Scopes trial."