"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Nowhere to go but up

Well. We hear that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is about to give final consideration to a draft "document on contraception." Like many other USCCB documents, such as the excellent 1999 pastoral proposal on adult religious education, it will probably gather dust—unless it actually says the only things it could usefully say. It will get attention if it says that the Church's teaching on the topic is irreformable, is not optional, and that pastors must make both points clear to the faithful in every way possible. I'm hoping to hear that—even though I know that the public reaction would be mostly negative. Like that of a person embarking on a third marriage, my hope triumphs over my experience. There's nowhere to go but up.

Save perhaps for the butchering of the liturgy that took place after Vatican II, the single most destructive event in the Catholic Church within the last forty years was the response of the worldwide college of bishops to Pope Paul VI's brave, prophetic encyclical on birth control: Humanae Vitae. A few bishops' conferences endorsed it fully, to be sure; but most, like the Canadian bishops, either issued slightly veiled rejections or left the issue up to the "conscience." Inevitably, the latter response came to be code for ignoring the teaching with putative spiritual impunity. What's happened since was altogether predictable: most Catholics ignore the teaching as at best irrelevant and at worst as an embarassing vestige of the repressive past. Unsurprisingly, pretty much the same has happened with regard to most of the Church's teaching on sexual morality. Aside from the teaching on adultery—an act whose emotional consequences for the betrayed are still readily grasped—most Catholics treat Church teaching about sexual morality pretty much as they treat the teaching on contraception in particular. And it was episcopal wobbliness on the latter teaching that has led not only to the erosion of conviction about sexual morality but also about the credibility of the Magisterium quite generally. The way the contraception issue has been handled by the hierarchy since Vatican II is—save, again, for the liturgy—the single worst self-inflicted wound for the Catholic Church of our time. While giving better reasons than HV had for the traditional teaching, Pope John Paul the Great's marvelous "theology of the body" hasn't changed most minds and thus has functioned only as a band-aid. Something more must be done and can be done. Perhaps this pending document will be a start. It had better be.

Like all controversial moral topics, this one raises many questions. Anticipating some of them, I refer readers to a previous post of mine on contraception, which contains other useful links. But I want the bishops to know, and will let some of them know, that this is one handoff they can't lateral.
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