National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 21, 2003

Birth control rerun adds little to Catholic life

You might have gotten the impression, in reading Joe Feuerherd’s coverage of the bishops’ conference, that we were doing some sort of retro issue.

We’re not.

Yes, the bishops actually are going to spend time and money working up an “easy to read” brochure explaining anew the church’s teaching that bans the use of artificial birth control.

On one level, it’s no big deal. What’s one more brochure in the back of the church? The evidence shows that Catholics have overwhelmingly rejected and ignored the teaching for the past 35 years, and there is little evidence to suggest that trend won’t continue no matter how “appealing” the public relations campaign.

To ignore it, however, would be to overlook what this latest initiative symbolizes -- a reversion to a discredited teaching, insistence on perpetuating a theology of sex and marriage that has little relationship to the lived experience of millions of married Catholics, and yet another hollow assertion of authority from a leadership that has yet to face up to the deep and disturbing institutional problems that beset the church in the United States.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, outgoing chairman of the bishops’ pro-life committee, reportedly dismissed a question about Catholics’ rejection of the teaching: “The church’s teaching on charity is ignored by virtually all of us also. The church teaches a lot of things we don’t practice.”

That’s a witty sound bite, but it’s also way off base. Catholics may not perfectly practice the teachings on charity -- humans being humans, after all -- and that might amount to ignoring them at times, but the archbishop would be hard put, we believe, to find Catholics who reject outright the teachings on charity the way they have the teachings on contraception. Quite the contrary, he would probably in his archdiocese find countless examples of heroic acts of charity among members of his flock. And many of them, we’d bet, have used artificial birth control without the slightest qualms of conscience.

Further, we only wish the teachings on charity would take up as much worry time for some of the Catholic hierarchy as do concerns over what married laity might be doing in their bedrooms.

There is a sexual scandal in the church, but last we knew, it had little to do with lay people.

According to reports, the discussion about the pamphlet on birth control elicited more comments from more bishops than most other agenda items.

Why the high interest?

Maybe it provided easy diversion.

After all, there is a serious priest shortage that threatens the very sacramental life of the church. One might think that critical subject would take center stage.

Or what an opportune moment to update the pastoral on war and peace. We live in a country that has engaged in two wars in the last two years, including a “pre-emptive” war that the pope repeatedly and without qualification condemned; we are engaged in an open-ended war on terrorism that has been used as an excuse for an unprecedented assault on civil liberties. And we are draining our treasury, spending more on war and warmaking than most of the rest of the world combined. Not a word.

The time also is ripe for an update of that other watershed document of another era, the pastoral on economics. Globalization, migration, the loss of jobs to the developing world, growing joblessness in our own society, the changing nature of work and the workplace, the continuing assault on unions and those who seek to organize -- all of those topics scream for moral leadership and wisdom. Not a word.

What we got were a rousing call to fight gay unions and a promise to once more explain to the laity a teaching they have repeatedly rejected.

The teaching has been ignored not because Catholics are willfully defiant, but because the teaching simply doesn’t make sense. While Natural Family Planning may have value for some, most faithful married Catholics have found it impractical.

The overwhelming majority (52-4) of a commission of theological experts and others appointed by Pope Paul VI voted to advise him to overturn the ban. Unfortunately, he yielded to curial pressure and ignored his own experts.

Humanae Vitae, the so-called “birth control encyclical,” has some wonderful passages on the meaning of marriage and responsible parenthood. It is expansive in its treatment of the infinite ways in which a man and woman can help each other to wholeness and holiness. Yet when it treats the matter of sexuality, all the language about relationship is reduced to simple biology, and the sole focus is the procreation of children.

A church in which that view prevails would be one either marked by the inhuman struggle of couples who, pre-Humanae Vitae, tried mightily to adhere to the teaching, often at great cost to their relationships and their sexuality. Or one in which, as has occurred in the years since the document, most Catholics ignore the rule. Or possibly one -- and who knows what the future holds -- in which the church shrinks to a small band of extremists whose Manichean approach to life, marriage and sex will more resemble another clerical caste than Christians engaging their faith in the real world.

Catholics yearn, in this era of scandal, for some leader to excite their imaginations once again to the possibilities of faith. This won’t do it. In the end, it may be nothing more than a little pamphlet, but the effort amplifies the sad emptiness of this moment in U.S. Catholicism.

National Catholic Reporter, November 21, 2003

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