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«THE CATHOLIC CHURCH’S MISSED OPPORTUNITY Gabriel Moran During recent centuries there has been a struggle to put in place humane controls of the ...»

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The Pope may have been surprised at the committee’s conclusions; in any case, he rejected its advice. In 1968 he produced a disastrous encyclical, Humani Vitae. One of the few things that liberal and conservative commentators agree upon is that the encyclical split the Catholic Church. There was instantaneous objection by many Catholic theologians. It took a while for defenders of the encyclical to marshal their forces but eventually they made acceptance of the encyclical a chief test of orthodoxy.

Millions of Catholics were not interested in fighting; they simply voted with their feet. Millions of other Catholics maintained that they were loyal members of the Church while they followed their consciences and rejected the papal teaching. It was shortly after the publication of the encyclical that sociologists coined the term “cafeteria Catholics.” The phrase referred to Catholics who pick and choose which Church doctrines to accept.

There probably are many such people. However, millions of Catholic couples who rejected Humani Vitae were not choosing whatever they liked from the tradition while dismissing the rest. They were claiming that responsibly controlling birth was a more accurate following of Catholic Church tradition at its best than the Pope’s distorted vision of human sexuality.

In the 1970s the bishops and the pope seemed to redraw a line of defense around abortion. That was especially true in the United State after Roe v. Wade. Many bishops and moral theologians in the 1960s had unwisely tied together birth control and abortion Birth control had to be stopped, it was said, or abortion would be next. It was a terrible premise to assume that birth control and abortion should be condemned on the same basis. On the contrary, approving nonviolent forms of birth control is a needed protection against abortion as the most violent form of birth control.

Whereas the control of birth is a moral necessity, abortion is a moral failure. No one thinks abortion is good; nearly everyone thinks it is bad. But there are degrees of being bad. Charging tens of millions of people with being murderers is not a helpful strategy if one wishes to reduce the number of abortions and limit the violence in those that do occur. Abortions are not going to stop but the way to reduce them is to encourage nonviolent forms of birth control. Nationwide, three out of ten pregnancies end in abortion; in New York City, four out of ten do. This is a national problem that needs to be addressed. A consensus probably exists in the country about many of the needed steps to reduce abortions but not much is being done other than putting obstacles in the way of women who have decided to have an abortion..

Since the 1970s there had seemed to be a tacit agreement not to make a public fuss about contraception. Catholics had decided either to move out or to stay in the church while quietly following their consciences on sexual matters. Whatever was said in confessionals, there was little inclination to denounce birth control from the pulpit.

Suddenly in 2012 it was as if the last forty years had not happened. The issue of contraception was suddenly in play started by a Republican presidential contender. Rick Santorum, speaking of contraception like a 1950s Catholic, managed to get his competitors to take up the issue.

Then the Obama administration unluckily unleashd a whole new discussion. A federal rule on insurance coverage for among other things contraceptives exempted churches but not institutions that are church related. Since similar laws already existed in many states, the White House probably gave little thought to possible negative reaction.

And if it were not for the fact that contraception had just made a new entrance on stage after forty years of near silence, the reaction might have been limited to a few questions raised and some quiet adjusting for any group that saw a problem.

Republicans in the House and on the campaign trail pounced on this unlikely issue.

Anything that could be used to pummel Obama and his health care program could not be allowed to pass. The issue they claimed was not just contraceptives but an attack on religious liberty. The White House had opened war on the Catholic Church, religion and the God given liberty of every American. The Catholic bishops seemed happy to have an issue on which to reassert their authority. Every poll warned them that they had no chance on this issue with the fertile part of the Catholic population.

The Obama administration immediately backed off and offered a compromise that would save face for both the White House and Catholic officials. But at this point compromise was unacceptable. And so the Catholic bishops were in danger of aligning themselves with the far right’s attack on extending health care to all citizens. That may qualify as pro-life to some people but it is not a support of the living beings who lack health insurance.

The attempt of Catholic Church officials to refight a battle that they have already lost undermines what Catholic tradition has to offer on a range of important issues. A visitor from another planet would see that on the whole the Catholic Church is a defender of the integrity of human life. A sacramental outlook respects all life and places the human being at the center of life.

The Catholic Church’ record on war is mixed but as war has become more insane the Catholic Church has edged toward becoming a strong voice for peace. On what is euphemistically called “the death penalty,” Catholics have been leaders in working for the end of the state execution of prisoners. And in cases concerning the beginning and the end of human life, when the organism is most vulnerable, the Catholic Church is usually on the side of protecting the person from violent misuses of technology.

It would be a tragic loss for society to have these contributions obscured by a distorted view of sexuality on the part of Catholic Church officials. It will take some careful and sustained effort by those officials to find their way out of the mess they have created. What will be required to do so is that they listen to the full resources of their own tradition and to the indispensable experience of millions of loyal church members.

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