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Friday, November 21, 2003

Don’t Worry, Be Happy Now

It’s amazing really. From Bach to Eminem, every bit of music is a variation on eight simple notes. The same goes for literature – the Greeks identified roughly a half-dozen different plots, and that’s all anyone has ever used. Unhappiness is the same way. There are only a handful of ways to become unhappy.

Seven Means to Seven Sorrows
My house isn’t as nice as I would like, for instance. It certainly isn’t as nice as Fred’s. If I had Fred’s money, it would probably be as nice, but I don’t. Every day I see Fred get in his nice car, drive away from his nice house and go to his salaried job. Just the thought of it makes my chest ache. I’m not happy.

In fact, I am angry. I am just as good as Fred. Why should Fred get all the breaks? In fact, if the truth be told, Fred couldn’t match up to the same standards I have to meet every day! Certainly the piddling little possessions he has wouldn’t be enough to properly compensate me! They would have to pay me a lot more than he gets if they wanted someone of my caliber. A lot more.

Just thinking about it makes me unhappy. I’ll buy that chocolate in the checkout lane, and get the extra half gallon of ice cream. After all, I deserve it. And tonight, maybe a night out on the town, down at that little strip bar below the hill, while my wife is curled up on the couch, ignoring me and reading another one of her romance novels. The new dancer is supposed to be really cute. A night out, that’s what I need. I’ll be happy if I get a night out down there.

But, no. I wake up the next morning and I am still unhappy. Ah, what’s the use, anyway? I’ll just clock in at work, and sleep through the morning, like I did last week, and the week before that, and… well, you know how it is. No point in helping out at home, either. She grumbles when I help, and she grumbles when I don’t, so I ain’t.

There you have it: the seven ways of being unhappy. Every sin is a variation on one of those themes. If you have ever wondered why sin is so banal, if you have ever wondered why priests say they can’t remember the sins they hear in the confessional, this explains it. Would you be able to remember who told a story like this, especially when you’ve heard it hour after hour, day after day, from every person who walks in your door? The grace isn’t in the priest’s forgetting, it’s in the fact that the priest doesn’t throw us bodily out the door when we begin our agonizingly sad, insipid list of sins.

Envy, anger, pride, greed, gluttony, lust and sloth: these are the seven ways we make ourselves unhappy. There really aren’t any others. But we are so lost in our sins, so fixed upon the unhappy illusion that our sins are somehow special, unique, that we wouldn’t know there are only seven ways to sin, if not for the spiritual equivalent of the Special Forces.

The Special Forces
The Desert Fathers trained hard in demanding environments: deserts, windswept crags, open spaces bare to the fury of the elements. They specialized in spiritual warfare, in identifying the Enemy’s attacks and wiping out his advances. As they fought the Evil One, they discovered a secret that even now he tries to keep secret. They discovered the utter banality of his methods of attack.

He only has seven forms of attack. So the Fathers, like every expert martial artist, not only identified the attack methods, they also identified the seven simple counters that neutralize the attacks. Master these seven counters, and the devil can’t touch you. Instead, he whiffs air every time, while you pummel him and dance away. But, like any martial art, mastering these counters takes training, practice, and the willingness to endure pain. You have to have the grit, the guts, to grin through the pain and win anyway. So, take off your coat and get ready to work.

In the battle for sanctity, sin is a broken bone, a serious, painful setback. We need a hospital. Fortunately, that’s exactly what the Church is. We need treatment. That’s what the liturgy and the sacraments are. A doctor does not treat a broken bone by placing a cast on it for 45 minutes once a week. If we want to be healed, we need to get serious about taking the medicine. Set a broken arm in a cast for six weeks, and no one, not even the patient, can tell that the cast is doing any real good. But it is. Regularly attending to reconciliation, Mass and Eucharist may not feel like it is doing any good. But it is. This is how you can tell.

Are you envious of Fred’s stuff? Recognize that God allowed him to have all that stuff for a reason. He is the steward of that stuff. If he doesn’t handle it well, he’ll have to answer to God. The Scriptures are filled with stewards who lost their place because they mishandled their master’s wealth. Rejoice that your neighbor is wealthy, help him recognize his awesome responsibility before God. As you help him prosper in grace, he will his wealth wisely, assisting those in need. This joy in another’s good fortune is true love, and love counters envy.

Angry because of misfortune or the shortcomings of those around you? Be kind to them. They aren’t any happier about their shortcomings than you are, and they know your shortcomings better than you do. As you are kind to them and assist them, you fulfill the Scriptures – where one part of the body is weak, another makes it strong. Be kind to them, let them be kind to you. Kindness and compassion counters anger.

Proud of how much better you are than other people? Recognize that every gift you have is on loan from God. He gave it to you, and He expects a return. Fred is steward over a lot of money, you are steward over a different kind of wealth, and you too have to answer to God for how it is spent. Recognize the reality. In fact, that is the definition of humility: to recognize reality and respond appropriately. Humility does not mean being a doormat. It means that you recognize who gave you your gifts, and you recognize that you must use them to help others or be damned. That’s a humbling thought. Humility counters pride.

Do you want more than you need? Whether we seek money, power or respect, we have to be good stewards of what we are given. A good steward makes sure everyone around him lives comfortably. He gives generously, even denying himself if it is necessary. Give the praise to another, the money, the power. Let others shower in it. The generosity of the widow’s mite counters greed.

Do you have consume more food, entertainment or other goods than is necessary? Consider your state in life. Everyone needs material things to get by, but if we have more than we need, we are stealing from those who do not have what they need. For instance, given my state in life I don’t need more than three pairs of shoes. If I have more than three pairs of shoes in my closet, I owe someone shoes. A person in a different state in life might require four pairs, yet another only one. Temperance is accurately assessing your needs and not exceeding them. It requires faith that God will provide: we do not want to build a new barn to hold our stuff, only to find that God demands our life of us this very night. Faith and temperance counter gluttony.

Having difficulty controlling your eyes or your thoughts? Train your eyes as you would train your legs for a race. Practice looking away. Practice identifying idle thoughts and banishing them. Do you always insist on the best? Take less than the best and endure it. Scripture says obedience can only be learned through suffering. If you aren’t suffering, you aren’t learning self-control. Self-control counters lust.

Too worn out to change your life? This is not uncommon, because sloth is, in many ways, the most difficult sin to overcome. Make a conscious effort to attend Eucharistic adoration, do Bible study, say the rosary, meditate on the stations of the Cross. Or, take baby steps: learn about indulgences and do them. A partial indulgence can be obtained simply by making the sign of the Cross, or praying a one-sentence prayer as you work, such as, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” As you perform these little partial indulgences for yourself and for the dead, the grace you win for the world will begin to heal your sloth and energize you. You will have more energy, more zeal, for your prayer life and the sacraments. You will find yourself attracted to sin less and less. Zeal for performing God’s commandments counters sloth.

That’s it. That’s all it takes. Cultivate seven virtues, nurture them through the sacraments, and you will be happy.

God will send the grace. You can do it. So, don’t worry. Be happy.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

The Door

No matter what one may think of the philosophy embodied in The Matrix movies, we have to recognize that millions of young adults across the country are being influenced by the way it talks about faith. As we saw last week, while these movies have a pretty skewed understanding of faith in some respects, they also get some aspects of it right.

Last week, we saw how the Wachowski brothers, the creators of The Matrix movies, described faith primarily as an emotion; they specifically denied it had anything to do with reason. We saw why this is wrong: faith is substantially a result of encountering historically accurate facts and correctly analyzing those facts. However, while this logical analysis forms the foundation of Christian faith, there is something more to faith, something that cannot be left out.

“I can only show you the door. You have to walk through.” Morpheus tells Neo this as Neo comes to the realization that he has a profoundly important role to play in the lives of the people around him. In this one sentence summary of what faith means, we can see an echo of the correct understanding of Faith. This is not surprising. Every heresy of the Church is based on a correct understanding of one aspect of Christian doctrine, a correct understanding that uneasily co-exists with several incorrect understandings. This is why heresy is so appealing: it’s almost right.

As we saw earlier, Faith is not an emotion. It gives rise to emotions, but it is not itself an emotion. Faith is just a short-hand word for an accurate analysis of accurate facts. But it is precisely the nature of faith’s facts that raise faith above even the logic and reason that are its foundation.

These facts have two characteristics. To begin with, the facts are not facts we have personally encountered. “Faith comes through hearing,” says St. Paul. Why through hearing? Because the facts of salvation history aren’t anything I’ve seen myself. I didn’t see God part the Red Sea. I didn’t see Him heal the blind man near the pool of Siloam, or talk with the woman at the well. I hear about these facts from other people, people I trust.

I trust these people, almost all of them Semites, most of them Jews, because the story they tell me spans several thousand years and dozens of generations. It is a story that every generation swears to, a vast sea of people together testify that what they tell me is real historical fact. These people are quite honest about their own shortcomings and the shortcomings of their families and friends. They don’t pretend these things happened to them because they are better than everyone else. They just witness: this is what happened.

I see from their testimony that they are like me, at times good, at times evil. I see that both of us strive for a goal we have not yet reached, a goal outside of ourselves, a goal that we cannot reach without help, but that is still somehow within our grasp. I see that we are kin. They do not intend to deceive me. I trust them.

Modern Biblical critics don’t. Many of today’s critics approach the text of Scripture with something called, “the hermeneutic of suspicion”. In other words, people using modern Biblical criticism don’t trust the authors of Scripture, the Semites, mostly Jews, who wrote the words of the text. Though the text is filled with warnings against the lying mouth and the deceiving tongue, these critics explicitly lack faith, even human faith, in the people who wrote the Scriptures. They trust the authors of Scripture less than they trust the gas station attendant who gives them directions to the freeway. Why?

That question is hard to answer. Some people are surrounded by “friends” who regularly lie to them, family members who have betrayed them. Anyone who feels betrayed, especially by a close personal friend, will naturally have a certain unwillingness to trust others, no matter how remote. Such people may even blame God for allowing such betrayal, for allowing men free will, allowing them to choose between being faithful and being traitors.

Indeed, it is possible these critics don’t trust God. Perhaps they’ve never felt God move in their lives. They’ve never found that impossibly good parking space, discovered the $50 bill in their winter coat at the very moment the bill collector called, or rolled through a mile and a half of green lights towards the hospital with their bleeding child in the back seat of the car. Maybe they’ve never felt that preternatural peace infuse their hearts at the very moment they needed it most. Whatever the reason, these critics deny kinship with the authors of Scripture and they deny that we should trust such people.

As a result, the facts that I receive, the testimony I read in Scripture, is not testimony for them. Instead, it is to be considered perjury until such time as the facts can be proven via other witnesses. Even if other witnesses come forward, archeology, anthropology and its brother disciplines, it may not help much. We cannot really trust the testimony of texts written by… these people.

The second characteristic of the facts flows from the first. The facts I see in Scripture have a depth beyond my understanding. I understand what I read, but I sense that there is more. Like a simple math equation that turns out to apply to dozens of wildly divergent disciplines, the facts of Scripture seem to ripple through human experience and pop up in the wildest places. I don’t know why the number pi is found in so many important mathematical equations. I don’t know why the figure of Christ appears in so many great works of visual and literary art, even pagan art. A mystery is something I understand, I just don’t understand it fully. The facts of Scripture are a mystery.

And herein lies the most mysterious aspect of the divine facts that I analyze through the working of Faith. I find that the very mystery of the facts, the very clarity of their analysis, fuels me with a power I would not otherwise have. When I encounter them, I am strengthened. Faith not only shows me the door through logic and reason, it empowers me to walk through the door.

Because the facts are true and the analysis is clear, I, along with every believer, am able to “see” consequences that no one has seen with their eyes. Like a blind man who can “see” the territory around him through his other senses, the infallibility of faith allows me to “know” facts that no one has yet told me. By the fact that God willingly reveals Himself to me, by the fact that He empowers me to see Him clearly through my logic, my reason, and my sense of depth, of mystery, I am willing and able to walk through doors of suffering and privation that I would never otherwise attempt to approach.

Faith is just a short-hand word for accurate analysis of accurate facts, but it brings me to a door. When I see bread crumbs scattered in a line along the forest trail, I “see” that a rational hand must have arranged them on the path, so I follow the trail, eating the bread along the way. However, like the bread crumbs in this example, the facts and the analysis do not just lead to a syllogism. Ultimately, divine Faith is a mystery precisely because, though it begins in an encounter with facts, it leads to an encounter with Persons, the Three Divine Persons who are Infinite Love. And in that encounter, these necessary and useful facts drop to the floor as I am swept up in His arms.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Quite Useless

You would think that anyone who was raised in Chicago with a name like Wachowski would likely know something about the Catholic Faith. After all, Chicago has a larger Polish Catholic population than Warsaw. Sadly, the Wachowski brothers are living examples of a phenomenon the Pope described in his very first encyclical, On Catechesis in Our Time.

You may not be familiar with the Wachowski name, but you almost certainly know their work: Larry and Andy are the brothers who wrote and directed the Matrix movies, along with the accompanying anime shorts which comprise the Animatrix, and the video game, Enter the Matrix. This movie series is one of the top-grossing films of all time; The Matrix was the first film ever to sell more than a million DVDs.

The Matrix movies have an enormous appeal for much the same reason The X Files did: they encourage people to think about mystery and hidden meanings. The convoluted Matrix plots are layered with hidden symbols, secret connections. However, while the way the symbols are used betray the Wachowskis' Catholic education, both the connections between symbols and the dialogue between the characters demonstrate that the Wachowskis never got beyond a grade-school understanding of the Faith.

The media makes a point of emphasizing how brilliant the Wachowski brothers are and the media is absolutely correct. The Wachowski brothers have clearly read a lot of intellectually stimulating books and have used what they read in an innovative and visually exciting way. However, it is just as clear that most of those books weren’t Catholic, that is, most of the concepts are not as logically coherent as one might hope. As a result, what is visually brilliant is logically flawed.

Take, for example, one short speech given by Morpheus, a major character whose early role somewhat resembles that of John the Baptist. He tells Neo, the hero, “Faith is not a matter of reasonability. I do not believe things with my mind. I believe them with my heart… in my gut. You are the sixth and the last. You are the One.” While this is a popular understanding of faith, and certainly the kind of thing one sees in many theology and philosophy books, it is a caricature, not the real thing.

Faith is not an emotion. It may have emotion as a consequence, but faith is not a feeling. Faith is a hard-headed look at the facts. Faith is a cold-sober, objective analysis of reality. Contrary to Morpheus’ misperception, faith is absolutely a matter of reasonability and of logic. It is always fact-based.

Consider a real world example: assume that you have just traveled to your friend’s house in another city. You offer to drive to the store to pick up a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread, but when you get to your car, you find it won’t start. So, you ask your friend where you should have it towed in order to get it repaired, who is a good mechanic in this town? He tells you. As soon as you decide to accept and act on the information he provides, you have demonstrated faith. Let’s see why.

You have faith that the mechanic he directs you to is, in fact, a good mechanic, capable of repairing your car. This faith is not an emotion: it is based on your past experience with your friend, your knowledge that he is reliable and he has never consciously steered you wrong in the past. After all, he is your friend, not your enemy.

Your faith is fact-based, you believe first with your mind, only after with your gut. If the mechanic ends up charging you an exorbitant fee and not fixing your car correctly, your faith in your friend, that is, your past experience with him, the facts of your previous relationship, will tell you that this failure is not your friend’s fault. He did not intend this failure, rather, the injustice was committed by someone who was beyond his influence.

But let’s assume the reverse. Perhaps you know your friend is lousy at differentiating a good mechanic from a bad one. Past experience with his recommendations has demonstrated this. As a result, you don’t have faith in his recommendations: they never panned out before, why should now be any different? In this case, you have faith that whoever he recommends is going to be lousy. You keep this in mind as you page through the phone book. Either way you look at it, faith is about facts.

For a Christian, faith in God, also known as divine faith, is precisely the same thing. It is based on facts: the facts we know from history about God’s interactions with man. We know these facts because we have an historically accurate account of them in a book that is commonly called Scripture. When we study this historically accurate account, we discover that God is reliable. When He tells us He will reward us, He does. When He tells us that, if we keep acting a certain way we will regret it, we find that we do.

The difference between human faith and divine faith lies in the reliability of the facts at hand. Human faith relies on human recollection and recounting of facts. Sadly, we humans sometimes don’t get the facts right, so our hard-headed analysis of those facts, that is, our faith, ends up being mis-placed, wrong. Fortunately, God prevents this error by recounting the facts for us Himself, via Scripture. That way, we know we have a good account of the facts. Our hard-headed analysis of those facts, that is, our faith, will not be misplaced or wrong as long as we don’t make any logical errors in the analysis.

But wait. People do make mistakes in analysis. So, even if we have the facts right, how do we know we haven’t done the analysis wrong? Because one of the historical facts is this: God promises to send us the power to get the analysis right. This power is called grace. God empowers His Church with the grace necessary for a correct analysis of the historical facts. This is the charism of infallibility. The facts are right, the analysis is right. This is divine faith.

Having the facts right and the analysis right leads to an emotion (joy) but the emotion is not faith. It is a consequence of faith. Faith is just a short-hand word for an accurate analysis of accurate facts. Divine faith is the divinely given power to accurately analyze the facts God gives us about Himself.

One logical consequence of this? There is no such thing as blind faith. It’s as ridiculously silly to speak of blind faith as it is to say, “Faith is not a matter of reasonability. I do not believe things with my mind. I believe them with my heart… in my gut...”

The Wachowski brothers, two men who were undoubtedly raised Catholic, wrote the script to The Matrix. They put these nonsensical words into Morpheus’ mouth. Why? Because they never got past a hazy, grade-school level understanding of faith. Instead of studying Catholic faith at an adult level, these two adults walk around trying to live an adult life with an eighth-grade understanding of Catholic concepts. It isn’t a pleasant thing, as I well know. Up through my mid-thirties, I was right there with them. I was a living example of what Pope John Paul II warned of in article 43 of Catechesis in Our Time. For “instruction in the Faith to be effective, it must be permanent. It would be quite useless if it stopped short on the threshold of maturity.”

A lot of time, energy and money was undoubtedly poured into the Wachowski brothers' Catholic education. Unfortunately, their education, like mine and that of many other adult Catholics, stopped short on the threshold of maturity. The Pope’s hard-headed analysis of the facts, his faith, told him what the result had to be.

Without adult education, we can look at all that parochial school instruction and sum it up in two words.

Quite useless.

Friday, November 07, 2003

The Infallibly Dirty Dozen

Councils in the early days of the Church were not quite so easy as today. Not only was travel arduous, disputing bishops were not above threatening physical violence to each other. At the Council of Ephesus, for instance, Cyril of Jerusalem had a bodyguard of sailors, while his opponent, Nestorious, brought gladiators from the circus. Back then, bishops played for keeps.

Ephesus met in order to decide if Mary could be called Mother of God, or if should she just be referred to as Mother of Christ. The faithful already knew the answer. The earliest known prayer to the Virgin Mary is the Sub Tuum Praesidium, “We fly to thy patronage, O Holy Mother of God: despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin.” It had been in constant use by the faithful for more than two centuries before the council. In fact, large crowds of Catholic faithful gathered around the building where the bishops met, and chanted, “Mary is the Mother of God!” That kind of attention from the faithful seemed to help focus the minds of the bishops.

Catholics are getting out their bullhorns again.

Have you heard about the Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas that isn't being built? It seems one contractor, a good Catholic, has organized every concrete supplier within 60 miles: no one will sell the abortionists the construction materials they need to finish the job. The main contractor just threw in the towel, saying the project could not be finished. Some babies in Texas will owe their lives to a Catholic who got angry and did something about it.

Have you heard of the Dirty Dozen? The shame of being on the list goes to Senators Ted Kennedy (MA), Tom Harkin (IA), John Kerry (MA), Tom Daschle (SD), Christopher Todd (CT), Jack Reed (RI), Patty Murray (WA), Mary Landrieu (LA), Patrick Leahy (VT), Barbara Mikulski (MD), Joseph Biden (DE), and Susan Collins (ME).

These are the Congressmen who simultaneously claim to be Catholic and pro-abortion. A pro-abortion Catholic politician is like a cop on the take - they keep their jobs, but nobody they serve is very happy about it. Their superiors, for whatever reason, can’t or won’t do anything, the cops have “friends” who make sure the community stays quiet, and we in the community are too scared to speak.

Well, the times, they are a’changin’.

For the last several months, the American Life League (ALL) has run full-page ads in major newspapers denouncing pro-abortion Catholic Congressmen as heretics. This may seem harsh. It isn’t.

Pro-life Catholics have tried to be nice to these particular heretics for thirty years. All we got in return was partial-birth abortion and RU-486. If this is winning, how many body bags does it take to lose?

You may wonder where ALL gets the idea that they have the authority to declare someone a heretic. That’s simple. ALL is simply repeating the constant teaching of the Church - anyone who claims to be Catholic has to publicly live their Catholic faith. Insisting that abortion or contraception is compatible with being Catholic is heresy. That’s as nice as one can put it without lying.

The saints would agree. In A Man For All Seasons, Thomas More points out that a certain young man, being a heretic, could not marry his daughter. The young man replies heatedly, “Sir Thomas, now that’s a word I don’t like!” The saint replies with perfect courtesy, “It’s not a likeable word, it’s not a likeable thing,” and sends him home. Sir Thomas lost his head at the block rather than tell a simple untruth. And he wasn’t even a consecrated man.

While the silence from the pulpit has become deafening, the lay faithful are beginning to chant. Check out your nearest major newspaper. ALL is now asking the Catholic bishops of America why they have been silent on the attempt to starve Terry Schiavo to death, why they allowed her to be denied the last rites and viaticum without raising a word of protest to the secular authorities.

These are darned good questions. These are questions the Catholic faithful have a right to ask. And we all have a right to a darned good answer. Heterodox groups are very fond of pointing out, the Second Vatican Council wrote: “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief.”

Catholic heretics use this as a basis for demanding women priests, a married clergy, changes in the teaching on contraception, and immediate co-equal participation in the procession of the Divine Persons within the Trinity. Well, they haven’t demanded the last yet, but it’s sure to come.

In any case, these same heretics always forget what follows the phrase they lift so carefully out of Lumen Gentium, #12, “They manifest this special [infallible] property by means of the whole peoples' supernatural discernment in matters of faith when ‘from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful’ they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth. It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of men but truly the word of God. Through it, the people of God adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints, penetrates it more deeply with right thinking, and applies it more fully in its life.”

What Lumen Gentium describes is known as the sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful. It is one of the three infallible expressions of the Magisterium. When Catholic faithful who (1) have a properly formed conscience (2) express the faith as given to the saints, then these same Catholic lay faithful speak infallibly. Bet'cha didn't know you could do that, did ya'?

That’s what makes ALL’s work different from Voice of the Faithful. ALL is simply shouting from the rooftops what the universal Church has always taught, though some particular local bishops have not. The problem with “orthodox” Catholics is that we’re too shy. This is not good. As long as we are shy about speaking the truth, we aren’t really orthodox. There is no opposition between right belief (orthodoxy) and right action (orthopraxy). They inform one another, they need one another. We cannot say we are orthodox if we do not proclaim the Gospel. Silent orthodoxy is not orthodoxy, it is the sin of apathy at best, the condemned heresy of Quietism at the worst.

Some might point out that there is a season for everything under the sun, and it is certainly true that one should not speak out of season. However, thirty years is rather a long winter, and this winter’s plagues have been particularly harsh. We’ve dug a lot of graves because we haven’t stood up to the heretics, because we haven’t given them the names they’ve worked so hard to earn. It is a mark of respect for the man and for the truth to honor every man with the name his work deserves. If we want what the Pope wants - a springtime of evangelization - then we had better join our voices and shout the Gospel from the rooftops.

But remember, shout loud.

Some of our fellow citizens are kind of deaf.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Laughter: The Best Medicine

The United Nations is upset with the Church again.

What a (yawn) surprise.

Recently, Cardinal Trujillo pointed out the obvious: condoms do not protect against HIV. Though he simply echoed the point several dozen secular experts have made for years, namely, that HIV is several dozen times smaller than the smallest holes in a latex condom, and therefore not effective, the press immediately took offense.

The World Health Organization disagreed. “When you use a condom badly so that it breaks or slips or it is past its 'use-by date' it is not very effective," spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said. "Two years ago, in June 2001, there was a big study that reviewed all the literature on male condoms. This study showed that condoms are 90 percent effective against HIV/AIDS infection, and the other 10 percent is when they were used wrongly.”

Unfortunately, the ‘big study” Miss Chaib refers to says nothing of the sort. Open up a new browser window, point it at and follow along for the fun.

The “Assessment of Data” on page one admits that the scientific literature is inadequate: the experts simply don’t know how effective condoms are in preventing STDs. Certainly Miss Chaib would have bothered to read the first page? But wait. It gets better.

By page 2, the government study is insisting that, though it can’t be certain about how effective condoms are with any other STD, it knows for sure that condoms are effective against HIV. Well, let’s see their reasoning.

The experts collected all the studies on condom use they could find, then examined and compared them in what is called a “meta-analysis”. Note their warnings on pp. 5-6, particularly conclusions 6 and 9. “Most studies” did not provide useful information on condom usage or on exposure to disease. So, they admit their meta-analysis isn’t really based on 138 studies, it’s actually based on just “a few” – how few, they won’t tell us.

By page 9, they admit that most studies they used are older (they don’t include newer, ostensibly higher quality condoms), they rely heavily on user recall of events and self-reporting, and they cannot be considered rigorous. Yet, these older studies tend to be all anyone has. They end by estimating that the newest condoms have only a 3% failure rate, but the statistics they include in their own report tends to corroborate the 10% to 30% failure rate given by the older studies.

Consider: On page 10, the study insists that couples using condoms correctly experience only a 3% failure rate. Their evidence? One rigorous study, consisting of user couples in a long-term monogamous male-female relationship who claimed a perfect use rate showed a 1.1% pregnancy rate for "consistent [condom] use" and a 6.3% pregnancy rate for overall condom use.

First, even a high school science jockey knows that one study does not prove anything. The whole point of science is to replicate results. If other researchers cannot replicate the results then the event didn’t happen, from a scientific point of view.

Second, even assuming this study was done perfectly and can be replicated, the actual pregnancy rate given in the study necessarily means the actual condom failure rate was at least four times higher. After all, sperm can only fertilize an egg that is present, and a woman can only get pregnant for about one week a month, on average. This "one week a month" takes into account that the egg is only able to be fertilized for a period of 24 hours (it disintegrates 24 hours after release), and that sperm can survive in the woman's reproductive tract for between three and five days. This also assumes there are no other problems inhibiting pregnancy: e.g., the man does not have a low sperm count, and the woman doesn't have other biological problems (scarred ovarian tubes, insufficient endometrial lining in the womb, etc.) that prevent implantation, etc.

Thus, if a condom study is using pregnancy rate to demonstrate condom effectiveness, the pregnancy rate is always going to be 1/4th the actual condom breakage, because the egg is only available for fertilization 1/4th of the time. If the experts want to assume that the pregnancy rate correlates exactly to the condom failure rate, they have to assume that condoms only fail when a woman has just ovulated or is just about to ovulate. That is, either condom using couples are only having sex during the woman's fertile period (one week a month), or the condom itself is able to maintain its own integrity when the woman is not fertile, but it somehow senses the woman’s impending ovulation and, unable to cope with the additional responsibility, slips or breaks. Obviously, both of these suppositions are absurd, and no one has ever asserted either of these things to be true.

So, the very pregnancy rates cited in the “one rigorous controlled trial” for "perfect use" condoms require that the actual condom failure rate has to be at least between 4.4% and 25.2%. Worse, these rates can only be this low if we assume all the people in the studies cited are in perfect health and able to conceive - something no one looks at in any condom study. Thus, we can safely assume that the condom breakage rate in the NIH approved study is most definitely higher than 4.4% to 25.2%. This is verified by the next few sentences: according to another study, 14% of couples experience an unintended pregnancy in the first year of use, which means these couples have an actual condom failure rate of at least 64%!

But wait! It still gets better!

The studies cited here are between “long-term monogamous male-female couples.” These couples have the time, the experience and most important, the motivation, to be deliberate and careful about their condom use. They think children will harm their sex lives, and they want to maintain their long-term relationship, so these couples are motivated to use condoms effectively. Will such motivation be present in a one-night stand man, who is moving quickly with the flow of the moment in order to get his new acquaintance's panties off? Will it be true of the homosexual using a "glory hole" in the public restroom, who gets his thrills in the danger of possibly being caught? Myriad other scenarios of a people engaged in similarly less deliberative situations could be brought forward. It seems unlikely that every couple would have the same success rate as a long-term monogamous heterosexual couple, who has a vested interest in not getting pregnant precisely because they want to preserve their long-term relationship and fear that pregnancy would somehow alter that relationship. NIH is cherry-picking their situations to get that 1.1% failure rate, and they know it.

They even admit it. The panel points out on p. 12 that none of the studies considered by the panel evaluated the rate of condom slippage or breakage in persons under 18 years of age. This is rather important, because other studies have repeatedly shown and already established that teenage condom use is associated with alcohol and drug use.

Put another way, teen risk behaviours travel in clusters. Consider the following group of risk-taking activities: smoking, alcohol use, drug use, sex. All researchers agree that if a teen engages in any one of the activities in that group, s/he is also much more likely to engage in at least one other activity in that group - if s/he regularly engages in two activities in that group, s/he is almost certain to regularly engage in three or four. That means that teens having sex are not infrequently going to be drunk or stoned while doing so. Now, what is the likelihood that a drunk or stoned teen will correctly use a condom? The panel deliberately ignored the teen population because it destroys their "condom failure" figures.

Finally, the WHO's own studies indicate that condom use is not all its cracked up to be in terms of AIDS abstinence. The only African nation which has seen not only the relative, but the absolute number of AIDS cases drop, is Uganda. Coincidentally, Uganda is also the only country that does not have a government condom distribution program. The Ugandan government relies on abstinence promotion to reduce AIDS cases.

So, let’s sum up. The experts admit that condom studies don’t prove anything, their own pregnancy rate numbers show a condom failure rate four times higher than they admit to, and they manage to get their low rate only by ignoring both teenage sexual practices and the practices of any other couples whose actual use would increase condom failure figures.

And they wonder why we laugh at them.