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It's time to end the hypocrisy on birth control.

Its' The "Little Secret that no one talks about," "The credibility chasm," the unspoken line dividing most Catholics from much of the hierarchy. Around the issue hovers such hypocrisy that few people discuss it. This shadowy elephant lurching through the church's living room is, of course, the question of birth control.

"Oh, that!" most folks harrumph. "Dead issue." They turn their attention to more pressing questions because most married couples have already resolved their use of artificial contraceptives. They have little energy for a question that generated heat in the late '60s, but has been surpassed by more pressing needs in the '90s. Furthermore, they hesitate to involve themselves in a debate that drains their energy in negative directions. Better to get on with the reform of public policy or the education of children, the care for the environment or the shelter of the homeless.

Exactly. It's time to put this issue behind us. For the future health and past healing of the church, we should declare once and for all that the use of birth control is a question of conscience that Catholic couples should decide for themselves. The church need not make a pronouncement on the moral good or evil of the decision, simply honor the people's right to make their own responsible choices.

It's high time we admit reality: no amount of railing or threatening from popes or bishops seems to affect people's decisions on the use of birth control made in good conscience. On this issue, people have learned to trust their own intuitions, faith understanding, and life experience. On other issues, they may let the church tell them what to do, but on this one they stand firm. Let's applaud their maturity instead of berating them for a supposed "defection."

Indeed, "defection" is the wrong word to use for such a rare and clear consensus, such a powerful demonstration of the sensus fidelium, the "sense of the faithful." Thirty years ago when Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae vitae, which condemned the use of any means of birth control other than the rhythm method, over 600 theologians signed dissenting statements. And ever since, the polls have consistently shown that the vast majority of the Catholic laity disagree with their church's official position and practice birth control in good conscience. To cite just two examples: A 1992 Gallup poll showed that 80 percent of U.S. Catholics disagreed with the statement "Using artificial means of birth control is wrong." And a 1996 study conducted by Father Thomas Sweetser for the Parish Evaluation Project found only 9 percent of Catholics who consider birth control to be wrong.

These polls, gauging the minds of the faithful, also point up an irony. Paul VI upheld the teaching of previous popes in order to protect papal authority. But, instead, his action had the exact opposite effect. As Father Philip Kaufman, O.S.B. writes in How You Can Disagree and Remain a Faithful Catholic (Crossroad, 1995): "Before the encyclical, how many Catholics would have thought that they could disagree with the pope on birth control ... and still consider themselves good Catholics?" Now, a clear majority do.

That discrepancy raises the question of how the church makes decisions on any issue, not only on this particularly volatile one. The documents of Vatican II encouraged consultation of the laity in matters where they have expertise -- a process most successfully employed by the U.S. Catholic bishops in their pastoral letters on war and peace and the economy. But on the issue of birth control, the church has refused to listen to the experience of the laity. In 1980, London's Cardinal Basil Hume pleaded unsuccessfully with the Synod on the Family to pay serious attention to the experience of married laity He affirmed that their understanding and experience of matrimony was an authentic theological source.

How much better do parents understand their own families, with all their warts and blessings, than, with all due respect, do clerics who have never paid a tuition bill or worried as a sick child's fever mounts at 2 a.m. Is it any wonder that most married couples ask how celibate males can dictate an intimate choice to the mom or dad who is hard pressed financially or spent emotionally? It strikes many Catholics as bizarre that a position that seems hopelessly out of touch with the realities of their lives is now (along with the question of women's ordination) the litmus test for becoming a bishop!

Of course, there once was an attempt to listen to the lived experiences of the married laity. The Papal Birth Control Commission, established during the Second Vatican Council, had been charged with reviewing the issue and, largely due to the input from committed Catholic married couples, in 1966 concluded with a strong recommendation to the pope that the church's teaching should change. Although it was later outmaneuvered, what stands out in this endeavor is the broad agreement that was reached among its members. Despite the fact that Paul VI had stacked the deck with bishops who favored a prohibition on birth control, the majority concurred after extensive study that it should be allowed. Robert McClory's book on this story, Turning Point (Crossroad, 1997), makes fascinating reading: it's the saga of how a few conservatives undermined the work of the majority and convinced the pope to contradict the advice of all the experts he himself had assembled.

Beneath the official machinations runs the far more touching story of Pat and Patty Crowley, who surveyed 3,000 Christian Family Movement (CFM) couples in 18 countries to bring the Vatican the views of faithful people most affected by its decisions. Patty was one of only three married women represented; repeatedly hers was the sensible voice of realism. When the husbands and wives attending the Commission were housed in separate dorms, she quipped, "Well, that's one way of solving the problem!" And when Jesuit Father Marcelino Zalba pondered the fate of the millions the church had sent to hell in vain if its teaching on birth control were now found to be in error, she countered, "Father Zalba, do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?"

She brought with her many letters from Catholics trying desperately to uphold church teaching, but one of the most poignant lines came from the mother who asked, "Is contraceptive sex irresponsible when I have already borne ten little responsibilities?" Then as now, the discussion centers not on irresponsible sex practiced by unmarried teenagers, but on adult Catholics trying to be faithful to God and their families. Over and over, the married couples speak of love for spouse, joy in their children, and responsibility for the family. Then as now, the church's distinction between acceptable "natural" family planning and intrinsically evil "artificial" birth control makes little sense to most people.

Indeed, it is a scandal that what McClory calls a "sullen stalemate" has been allowed to continue this long -- with most Catholics ignoring the doctrine, the institution clinging to it even more tightly, and no one discussing the issue. In a speech 12 years ago, Bishop James Malone said, "Teaching is not a unilateral activity; one is only teaching when someone is being taught. Teaching and learning are mutually conditional." The fact that this teaching has not been "learned," has not been accepted by the people of God, makes this an example of a doctrine that is "not received." According to the eminent French theologian Cardinal Yves Congar, such nonreception means that the teaching "does not call forth any living power and therefore does not contribute to edification."

It would be hard to make a case that official teaching on birth control contributes in any way to edification. Instead, it provokes denial, harsh condemnation of good people, and unnecessary division of the community In this area, as in several others, intelligent, loyal Catholics resist when agendas that don't make sense are crammed down their throats.

It's time for a change, for a humble, healing, and public admission of what we've known for so long: Catholics are right in following their consciences on birth control. It's time for both clergy and lay church leaders to end their acquiescence to a dishonest system that perpetuates untenable anachronisms and has for much too long hurt the effectiveness, the integrity, and the credibility of the Catholic Church.

It is no secret that the majority of the Catholic clergy in this country side with lay Catholics in disagreeing with the birth-control ban -- a 1980 Princeton poll found only 30 percent of the priests agreeing with Humanae vitae. Yet the crackdown on "dissent" within the church has poisoned the debate and cowed church leaders into silence.

In a display of courage that has been all too rare among bishops in recent years, Bishop Kenneth Untener in 1990 addressed his colleagues: "I wonder how we can claim credibility when we ... [know] in fact that the logic is not compelling to the Catholic laity ... not compelling to many priests ... and not compelling to many bishops. When we know this and don't say it, many would compare us to a dysfunctional family that is unable to talk openly about a problem everyone knows is there."

Let's stop playing along in this dysfunctional Catholic version of the "don't ask, don't tell" game and begin to restore the credibility of the church. The 1966 plea of Patrick Crowley can still serve as a clarion call today: "Let us help the Holy Father scuttle this question so we can get on to the work of being Christ in the world."
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Author:Coffey, Kathy
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Column
Date:Jun 1, 1998
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