Ptolemy was an Egyptian-born Roman philosopher and scientist who lived around the First and Second centuries AD. He’s best known for the Ptolemaic System of the universe, an expansion of Aristotle’s view that the Earth laid at the center of universe and all the heavenly bodies, including the sun and stars, revolved around it. Aristotle’s theories did not account for certain observed movements of the planets, such as retrograde motion. Ptolemy tried to clear this up with his version.
Of course, Ptolemy’s version of the universe was wrong, too. But that didn’t stop others from defending and modifying it to the hilt. The concentric circles of the Ptolemaic system became more and more elaborate to account for every discreet and hitherto unexplained motion of the planets. After a while, the whole cosmos looked like a giant a print from a Spirograph set. Pretty. Mathematically fascinating. But astronomically and physically impossible. No matter. The importance was that the Earth remain the immovable center of creation. To maintain this fiction, the Ptolemaic Model was tweaked, twisted, turned, tossed, stirred, and shaken.
And therein lies the heart of my new definition for the adjective ptolemaic: something intentionally complicated to uphold a belief system that is at its core false. Note the difference between this use of ptolemaic and that of byzantine. Byzantine usually refers to something that is intricate and involved, a byzantine bureaucracy, for instance. A ptolemaic bureaucracy would be one that is intentionally complex to support a way of doing things that is in and of itself false or wrong or silly.
Pope Benedict XVI was widely quoted saying the other day that in some cases condom use is OK in order to help curtail the spread of HIV. He offered male prostitutes as a (bizarre) example of the sort of people for whom condom usage was fine. Wow! I applaud the Pontiff for making the connection between condom usage and the curtailment of the spread of HIV. But does he really mean to imply that only male prostitutes spread HIV disease? Or that male prostitutes, and presumably their johns, are the only population at risk for HIV disease? I think I’ve heard that one before. But the Pope’s logic is that male prostitutes do not procreate, therefore there is no contraception involved — something which the Church remains steadfastly against — therefore, it’s OK.
I call ptolemaic! Condoms have been the Vatican’s boogeyman since long before the AIDS pandemic spread across the planet. Contraception is a no-no. No condoms for you! That’s bad enough. Responsible procreating is something everyone should take seriously. However in the age of HIV/AIDS, the no condom message is highly irresponsible in the very extreme. But for a simple piece of formed latex, plus other preventative methods, HIV has run roughshod over swaths of the Earth’s populace for over 30 years. The message, then, should be loud and uniform: Use A Rubber. But to carry forth such a message would contradict too many of the Church’s major tenets: no sex out of wedlock, no gay sex, no contraception for married (one man, one woman) couples.
So for the Pope to say it’s OK for queer hookers to use rubbers to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, but that it’s not OK for others to so for the same reason smacks of perverse hypocrisy. Everyone, even straight people, even straight married people, can get HIV from unprotected sex. This is a reality which the Pontiff and the Church are unable or unwilling to recognize. Hence, his logic is impaired and deeply ptolemaic.
Sadly, the Catholic Church has a long tradition of supporting positions which it holds dear irrespective of the facts. Ask my friend Galileo.
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