I have been a bit conflicted lately. On one hand, I've been rooting for my Catholic alma mater, Villanova, in the NCAA men's basketball playoffs. On the other hand, I love the new condom wrappers featuring a picture of Pope Benedict XVI and the caption, ''I said no!''
Pope Maledict, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was dubbed by gay-rights pioneer Frank Kameny after being elevated to the Chair of Saint Peter, provoked consternation among HIV/AIDS workers last month by denouncing condoms during a visit to Africa. But he was just being himself. In 1986 he wrote that those who engage in homosexual activity ''annul the rich symbolism and meaning, not to mention the goals, of the Creator's sexual design'' and thereby ''confirm within themselves a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent.''
It is not clear how the homosexual part of God's design annuls the heterosexual part, nor why gay lovemaking is any less giving than that of, say, an infertile straight couple. By contrast, Ratzinger for years protected the late Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, who was accused of sexually abusing seminarians.
The Catholic Church's weak grasp of reality was evident in its recent excommunication of Brazilian doctors who performed an abortion on a 9-year-old girl who had been raped by her stepfather. Her mother was also excommunicated, but not the rapist. The girl had become pregnant with twins, and doctors judged her pelvis unable to support their gestation. When a Catholic Church spokesman said, ''Life must always be protected,'' he wasn't thinking of the girl. As controversy grew, however, the excommunication was overruled by a conference of Brazilian bishops, and the Vatican criticized the case's initial handling.
Ah, but I was taught not to throw out the baby with the bathwater; and indeed I know many reform-minded clergy, some even calling for openness to women's participation in the priesthood. Scripture also retains its value despite selective and tendentious reading by churchmen who use it more for control than reflection. One of my favorite passages is Deuteronomy 8:3, ''Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.'' A variation occurs in Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun when Beneatha's Nigerian suitor explains that his nickname for her, ''Alaiyo,'' means ''one for whom bread -- food -- is not enough.''
We are creatures for whom bread is not enough. Our quest for meaning drives us to explore and innovate. In the process it makes heresy unavoidable. In a diverse society, one man's priest is another man's iconoclast.
On March 19, American University's Washington College of Law hosted a conference on marriage initiatives. One panelist was Helen Alvaré, a law professor from George Mason University and an advisor to Benedict's Pontifical Council for the Laity. She talked as if marriage-equality advocates sought to change an eternally unchanging institution. I pointed out that civil law already differs considerably from the Catholic Church's doctrine on marriage, and the marriage fight is about civil law. Unfortunately, despite Christ's admonition in Matthew 22:21 (''Render to Caesar that which is Caesar's, and to God that which is God's''), the Catholic Church habitually seeks to conflate church law and civil law, as in its opposition to decriminalizing homosexuality.
Despite the Catholic Church's pose of unchanging perfection, its early centuries actually saw popes who were the sons of popes, and priestly celibacy was not definitively imposed until 1139. As for the inviolate nature of the marriage institution, its limits were suggested by 18th century French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais, whose The Marriage of Figaro centers on Count Almaviva's intention to exercise ''le droit du Seigneur,'' a tradition whereby a feudal lord was entitled to take the virginity of the women on his estate. Happily, the betrothed valet and chambermaid gain the help of the Countess in thwarting him. This lighthearted fiction hit close enough to home that it was banned for a time in the French court.
Frank Kameny believes that something old enough to be a tradition is old enough to be challenged. He said as much in 1978 during a gay-rights debate I organized at Villanova. I honed my skills for intellectual challenge in my undergraduate years there. As the Wildcats prepare for the Final Four, I am glad that hoops get all the attention. If His Holiness knew what was going on in Villanova's science building, I am afraid he would rearrange his 15th century vestments uncomfortably and cry, ''Stop!''