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t its November 2003 meeting, the U .S . Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) endorsed the writing of what the New York Times describe d as "an easily understandable booklet" explaining why artificial contraception is always wrong. The project originated in the conference's committee for prolif e activities and was explicitly linked to the church's campaig n against abortion. More was presumably at issue, though, and not only because the teaching on contraception create s major credibility problems for church leaders in their effort s to shape abortion law and policy. At the same meeting, the bishops also approved the tex t of a brochure opposing same-sex marriage . If procreation i s not the primary end of the sexual act, as moral theologian s once routinely maintained it is, on what grounds does on e prohibit all but marital sex—or even limit marriage to heterosexual couples? As Jesuit moralist John C . Ford articulated the argument in 1959, with reference to a statement b y a subcommittee of the World Council of Churches praisin g marital contraception: "The logical conclusion . . .is that se x outside of marriage, and marriages between homosexual s should be permitted ." The bishops appear willing to alienate many of the married laity, whose contraceptive practic e differs hardly at all from that of other Americans, in orde r to shore up the Catholic case against same-sex unions . It is not my purpose to debate the merits of homosexua l marriage . I want instead to contest the bishops' seeming as sumption that collectively reiterating the church's teachin g on contraception will have only transitory negative effect s on the laity . "The church teaches lots of things that we don' t practice," Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput told a new s conference, where he acknowledged that most Catholic cou ples routinely practice contraception . "The church's teaching on charity is ignored by virtually all of us also ." Like growing numbers of his fellow bishops, Chaput is too youn g to have adult memories of the 1950s, when a majority of mar ried Catholics were living, or trying to live, in accord with church teaching . Partly for this reason, he—along with man y younger advocates of a harder line on contraception—sim ply underestimates the damage done to the church by Humanae vitae . Commonweal readers of a certain age will know
what the married laity suffered and also know that, existentially speaking, being accused of grave evil in the course o f marital sex is not the same as being accused of failures wit h regard to charity . But even older readers of Commonweal ma y not remember how much damage the debate over contraception did to the parish clergy . Like Chaput, I am too young—though just barely—to hav e adult memories of the 1950s . I married in 1971, by whic h time the teaching on contraception was effectively a dea d letter—ignored by a substantial majority of married Catholic s and seldom enforced in the mostly deserted confessionals . Some five years ago, though, I embarked on a history o f American Catholic pastoral practice with regard to contraception and the debate that eventually emerged over th e teaching's legitimacy . I read widely in clerical journals, pas toral literature, popular Catholic magazines, and even pamphlets . I digested the teaching notes of moral theologians and the sermon manuscripts of mission preachers . Perhaps most important, I had access to numerous letters on the sub -
Leslie Woodcock Tentler is professor of history at The Catholi c University of America. Her Catholics and Contraception : An Amer ican History will be published in the fall by Cornell University Press.
)on"t col Me opplc , I hru"Il dwell more structure Ohm [Flat!
April 23, 2004
ject from married Catholics and from some priests, mainl y dating from the mid-1960s . I also interviewed a number o f priests, nearly all of whom had pastoral memories of th e 1950s and many of the 1940s . Most of these men had bee n disappointed by Humanae vitae and were in that sense "liberals ." Nearly all, though, were distressed—some deeply so—by the current climate with regard to sexual morality . So I wasn't interviewing a group of clerical Jacobins . What did I learn from my immersion in what, for my three children, was exquisitely embarrassing subject matter? A t least three things . First, as some but too few Catholics know, the "acute phase" of the Catholic struggle over contraception was relatively brief, extending from Casti connubii i n 1930 until Humanae vitae in 1968 . Almost that many year s have elapsed since the struggle climaxed in the late 1960s . Second, the laity were simultaneously liberated by that strug gle (for better or worse, marital contraception was the issu e around which most adult Catholics came to a sense of mora l autonomy) and deeply wounded by what they perceived as the hierarchy's indifference to their experience as spouses. The result, when coupled with subsequent developments , was for many Catholics a growing detachment from the
and the single, seem regularly to have preached against con traception and in what for the times was fairly straightforward language . As for the parish clergy, they virtually never preached against contraception or abortion prior to the Firs t World War. They were apparently cautious in the confessional too, seldom if ever questioning penitents about wha t continued to be called the sin of onanism . Nor was there yet a pamphlet literature on the subject, which most Catholi c periodicals either left strictly alone or addressed in suc h opaque language that an unmotivated reader might entirely miss the point . Most of the laity, of course, were aware that contraception was wrong. They knew in a general sense that the churc h opposed it and were conscious of the stigma attached to con traceptive devices, still illegal—if obtainable—in most American jurisdictions . But many Catholics were probably ignorant , perhaps in part for self-interested reasons, of the absolute nature of church teaching . Contraception, in other words, might be generally sinful but not in certain extreme circum stances . And large numbers of Catholics evidently believe d that coitus interruptus was less gravely sinful than the use o f "devices" like condoms or pessaries .
At a time of almost breathtaking change in sexual values and behavior, church leader s had little to offer beyond what theologian Gerard Sloyan has called "prohibition s without explanations." Among the laity, the paralysis of leadership further eroded a n already weakened sense of connectedness to the institutional church.
church, at least in an institutional sense . Third, the debat e over contraception had particularly deleterious consequence s for the parish clergy . Let me deal with each of these assertions in turn, the first at some length and the latter two mor e briefly . he oldest document I found in the course of m y research dates from 1875 : the teaching notes o f a Passionist priest who was training neophyt e mission preachers . "The abominable crime o f Onan," Father Gaudienius Rossi informed his students, wa s "more common than many suspect" and should be "repro bated severely ." But prior to the First World War, hardl y any Passionist mission preachers spoke on the subject of contraception—if the surviving manuscript sermons in their archives are any guide . (Abortion was another story .) Al though missions were usually preached before same-se x congregations, period conventions would not permit a fran k discussion of birth control when unmarried persons wer e present . Only the Redemptorists, whose missions include d a "state in life" sermon preached separately to the married
These erroneous views came under increasingly sustained attack by reform-minded priests in the late teens and th e 1920s, when anti-birth control pamphlets began to appea r in churches and the issue featured with growing frequenc y in the Catholic press . By the 1920s, every religious order that preached missions routinely inveighed against contraception in the course of its standard sermon program . By the latter half of the decade, contraception was occasionally mentioned from the Sunday pulpit—although usually in veile d language . The principal clerical journals carried articles that encouraged confessors to ask penitents about "sins against marriage" whenever the penitent gave cause for suspicion in this regard . Most parish priests, however, clung through out the decade to older habits of reticence about marital sex , not only as preachers and confessors but also in the context of premarital interviews . So a good many Catholics apparently remained in what a gentle confessor might call "goo d faith" ignorance of the teaching. The situation was fundamentally altered in 1930 . The global depression which began in that year prompted change in a number of Protestant denominations, where tolerant si-
April 23, 2004
lence on birth control gave way to cautious public endorsement of marital contraception . Partly in response to the Anglicans' "defection"—for so the matter appeared to Catholi c leaders—Pope Pius XI issued Casti connubii, his encyclica l on Christian marriage, in the waning days of 1930 . That document provided a comprehensive synthesis of Catholic teach ing against contraception and directed the clergy to enunciat e this teaching in clear and uncompromising terms, especially in the confessional . The publicity attendant on the encycli cal made it harder than ever for Catholics to plead ignorance . So did the increasingly heated secular politics of birth control, which were covered by an increasingly respectful press . Growing numbers of Catholics, moreover, faced confessor s and preachers who felt obliged in conscience to enforc e church teaching, even at the risk of uncomfortable frankness . Younger Catholics by 1930 had for the most part been habituated to regular reception of the sacraments ; they were apt to have recourse to confession more frequently than thei r parents had done—as often as once a month and some eve n weekly . As such, they were arguably more likely to hea r clerical instruction on sexual discipline and perhaps mor e vulnerable to increased scrupulosity, especially with regar d to sexual sin. American Catholics in the 1930s were a mostly working class population, on whom the Depression bore with particular ferocity. Not surprisingly, their birth rate decline d precipitously in the early years of the 1930s, as did the national birth rate. One can hardly imagine more difficult circumstances in which to enforce a ban on contraception . Many laypeople simply ignored the ban, at least as reported b y their priests . But the psychological costs of so doing coul d be terribly high, especially for women . Many priests suffered too, although they were not—like some members o f the laity—disposed to doubt the teaching itself. Still, they were often torn between their obligation to enforce churc h teaching and compassion for the sufferings of their hard pressed parishioners . Some priests even worried that th e teaching on birth control was generating the kind of anti clericalism among American Catholics that had hitherto bee n characteristic of Europe . It was in this crisis-ridden context that news of the so called rhythm method was first promulgated . The theory of a monthly sterile period in the female was not new—various nineteenth-century physicians had argued that such a period existed . But nineteenth-century theories were base d on erroneous assumptions : most identified as the "safe period" precisely that time in the menstrual cycle when a woman is most likely to conceive . Thus few priests by the 1920s were commending "periodic continence" to their mos t troubled penitents, although it was licit for them to do so. Late in that decade, though, researchers achieved a more accurate understanding of the human ovulatory cycle, whic h raised new hopes for the effectiveness of rhythm. These discoveries—initially known only in scientific circles—were introduced to a broad American audience in 1932 . That som e priests publicly attributed these developments to a benefi 13
THE JUDGE GUIDO CALABRESI FELLOWSHI P IN RELIGION AND LAW
John T. Noonan, Jr.
1 US Court ofAppeals, 9 th Circui t
A CHURCH THAT CAN CHANG E AND CANNOT CHANGE :
THE DEVELOPMENT OF MORAL DOCTRIN E Thursday, April 22, 2004 .4 :30
P .M .
Saint Thomas More The Catholic Chapel & Cente r at Yale University (20 3) 777-5537 . www.yale .edu/stm cent Providence suggests the extent of the pastoral problem s by then attendant on the birth-control question . The secular politics of birth control were such that by the 1930s the nation's bishops were almost immediately mad e uneasy by public discussion of rhythm among Catholics , since it seemed to sanction a form of birth control . In nearly all dioceses, by the mid-1930s priests were under order s not to preach on rhythm or mention it in the confessional, save to truly desperate married penitents . Diocesan paper s were forbidden to carry ads for rhythm books and pamphlets . But if rhythm went "underground" at the time, it did not cease to play a role in Catholic pastoral practice . Indeed, it became increasingly central to that practice in the 1940s and 1950s . Yet not every priest gave an unreserved blessing to the practice of rhythm : as late as the early 1960s, ther e were those who regarded the method as permissible only i n extreme circumstances . But most priests welcomed rhyth m as at least a potential solution to a pressing pastoral problem . Men like these ensured that, regardless of the hierarchy's strictures, Catholics would be widely familiar with the method, if less sure of its efficacy than many of the clergy . Many of the same priests were freed, by virtue of their fait h in rhythm, to embrace a positive view of marital sex—a subject on which a significant theological discourse was initiat ed in the 1930s. This initiative bore major fruit after Worl d War II in such efforts as Cana Conference and the Christia n Family Movement.
April 23, 2004
he Second World War and its aftermath brought further change, initially of a mostly positive sort . The pastoral burden with regard to birth con trol seems to have been lightened, at least to a degree . A recovered economy and a rising birth rate mad e it easier, certainly in the psychological order, for priests t o insist on the teaching about artificial contraception . Still, birth control continued to be a major problem for confessor s and a source of worry for those good pastors who knew tha t it kept a portion of the laity from regular reception of th e sacraments . At the same time, the social disruptions attendant on World War II gave the teaching on contraception an enhanced legitimacy for nearly all priests and many of th e more devout laity. It was not just the nation's bishops who were alarmed by increased divorce and the growing domi nance of what looked to be a purely instrumental approac h to the values governing sex. Moreover, by the 1940s Catholic s were acutely conscious of standing alone in most of the na tion's battles over law and sexual morality. (Those conservative Protestant leaders who agreed with Catholics on suc h questions were seldom disposed to cooperate publicly wit h a church that some still regarded as the Whore of Babylon .)
church's ban on contraception. Their example alone lent legitimacy to that ban and boosted morale among the clergy, for whom its enforcement was still burdensome . Devou t young parents, presiding over their growing broods wit h apparent joy and serenity, preached more eloquently to the community that watched them than the most accomplishe d sermonizer could do . Under the tranquil surface of postwar domesticity, how ever, tensions persisted with regard to contraception an d eventually began to intensify . By marrying so early, youn g Catholics of this generation virtually ensured themselve s maximal fertility . Even the most idealistic couples generally experienced financial and emotional strain after the birt h of a fourth or fifth child, sometimes in as many years . College educated themselves in many cases, these parents expected no less for their children—at a time when the cost o f college was escalating rapidly . Nor were these couples immune to the vastly enhanced cultural authority of a mostly Freudian psychology . Catholics might proudly cling to thei r own high standards with regard to marriage, but when those standards required the exercise of essentially celibate virtues — as they sooner or later did—it was harder and harder t o
Perhaps most troubling, increasing numbers of Catholics came to assume that forming one's conscience on sexual matters was an essentially private endeavor . The celibate clergy were inevitably, if unfairly, discredited as authorities on sexual morality by the advent of
For growing numbers of Catholics, the teaching on birth con trol came to stand for their church's unyielding defense o f Christian morals in an increasingly pagan world . It had als o emerged by this time as a kind of tribal marker—a proud i f onerous badge of Catholic identity . Developments like these were reinforced in the late 1940 s by a culturewide romance with domesticity and a concurrent revival of religiosity across the confessional spectrum . They were also reinforced by a surge in enrollments at Catholi c colleges, fueled probably in equal parts by the GI Bill and a rising tide of Catholic piety . In this altered national climate , young Catholics—especially the well educated—embarke d with unprecedented enthusiasm on family founding, marrying earlier than their parents had done, and typically bear ing more children. They also bore more children than othe r Americans of their generation, with the college educated — in flat contradiction of demographic precedent—producin g on average the largest families of all . This Catholic version of postwar domesticity was suffused with religious meaning and intensity . Young Catholics in this generation were sometimes more ardent than their priests in defending the
square those standards with the culture's assumptions abou t sexuality and marital health. The more devout, though, seem seldom or never to hav e had recourse to contraception : only 30 percent of Catholic wives admitted to such in a national study conducted i n 1955 . Many of the "dissenters," moreover, seem to have ha d troubled consciences . Birth control figured prominently i n confessions heard at Christmas and especially Easter, as re ported by many priests. Such confessions were often difficult for priests, who worried at length about "recidivism " with regard to birth control and were frequently vexed b y hard cases . They were even more difficult for the laity . Th e shame attendant on confessing to sexual sin should not b e underestimated, especially for penitents raised on preternaturally high standards with regard to purity . Questions of honesty entered in too : Could a penitent claim in goo d conscience to have a firm purpose of amendment when sh e knew how likely she was to resume the practice of contraception? Could a penitent profess genuine sorrow for something that he might not regard as intrinsically wrong? Issues like these, addressed from a lay perspective, were seldo m
April 23, 2004
aired publicly before 1963 . But they simmered beneath the deceptively bright surface of postwar Catholic life, and do much to explain the anger that increasingly characterize d the debate over birth control in the mid-to-late 1960s . The rest of the story is well known, particularly to olde r Catholics . Numerous factors made for change : a rising leve l of education, the positive teaching on marital sex endorse d by groups like the Cana Conference, worries about overpop ulation, even the first faint stirrings of feminism . And then there was "the pill." First marketed in the United States i n 1960, the pill raised potential difficulties for the standar d Catholic argument against contraception, which turned o n the "deordination" of a natural act by means of artificial bar riers or the act's lack of completeness . Neither factor was relevant, strictly speaking, to the pill. Precisely for this reason, the pill provided an unprecedented opening for theological challenges to the traditional teaching . Dr . John Rock, the pill's Catholic codeveloper, was a pioneer in this regard , arguing in The Time Has Come (1963) for the pill's status as an acceptably "natural" mode of fertility control, analogou s to the rhythm method . Rock's efforts as a theologian wer e generally derided . But more authoritative voices were soo n being heard, likewise asserting the pill's fundamental difference from older methods of contraception. Led by the already venerable Bernard Haring and young Turks like th e moral theologian Charles Curran, the resulting debate ove r marital sex had a far-reaching impact on priests as well as the married laity. By 1964, the seemingly quiescent laity had acquired a pub lic voice . Writing initially in lay-edited journals like Jubilee and Commonweal, highly educated members of the laity bega n to speak—tentatively at first and later with growing boldness—the language of experience with regard to Catholi c doctrine on marriage . What to do when obedience to church teaching caused harm to one's marriage and palpable dam age to one's children? Lay writers probed the dilemma wit h homely eloquence . Many were bitter veterans of the rhyth m method, which they typically excoriated as destructive o f marital happiness and of dubious value as a means of family planning. Even those who had once endorsed the church' s stand on contraception as admirably countercultural, at leas t in the context of American hypermaterialism, now questioned that position . Given the global "population explosion" and the expanded educational needs of the young , both unprecedented phenomena, was it not suddenly possible to sin by having a child? And what about the highl y educated woman—for American Catholics, at least, another unprecedented phenomenon—who longed both for children and her rightful share of the world's work ? The Catholic debate over contraception quickly migrated to the mainstream media . Probably the majority of la y Catholics followed it via television and mass-circulatio n magazines. The coverage in such venues was invariably sympathetic to the laity, whose sufferings at the hands of th e church provoked a kind of incredulous horror on the par t of many media commentators . Pundits also suggested that
the teaching was bound to change, given the logic of the Sec ond Vatican Council and the existence of a papally appoint ed commission on the regulation of fertility . The net effec t was to raise expectations for such a change—expectation s that in retrospect seem wildly inflated, given the tenor o f papal statements on the subject, convoluted though these sometimes were . More damagingly, secular media commen tary reinforced for Catholics something that many had al ready intuited—that their church's grave error on th e birth-control front had been its refusal to speak the language of experience . n the end, most Catholic laypeople solved the birth-control problem on their own . On the eve of Humanae vitae, promulgated in July 1968, a majority of Catholic couples in their childbearing years were already using forbidden means to limit the size of their families . Paul VI's encyclical prompted every such couple, and also those who were teetering on the brink of disobedience, to some hard thinking about church authority . Most concluded, and in remarkably short order, that a t least on this intimate matter individual conscience reigne d supreme . In that limited sense, the birth-control crisis wa s over—resolved, for all practical purposes, by the laity who had forced it in the first place . Lay rejection of the teaching on contraception actually accelerated in the wake of Humanae vitae, especially among the young . Fully 78 percent of Catholic married women aged twenty to twenty-four, ac cording to a study done in 1970, were limiting their familie s by a means other than abstinence or rhythm. It would not be long before Catholic contraceptive practice differed hard ly at all from that of other Americans . But as every thoughtful Catholic knows, the birth-control crisis had tremendous fallout . If the laity were emancipated by Humane vitae, as certain radical commentators had it , some were also embittered by its seeming rejection of th e laity's public witness . Only a relative handful, in all likelihood, left the church as a direct result of the encyclical. Muc h larger numbers seem to have distanced themselves from th e institutional church in a psychic sense . Even hitherto "core" Catholics became less regular in their attendance at Mass . Growing numbers went infrequently to confession, or eve n gave up on the sacrament entirely . (The decline in confession preceded the encyclical, but still had a great deal to d o with contraception .) The collapse of confession meant tha t fewer and fewer Catholics had one-on-one contact wit h their priests, a problem exacerbated by a growing shortag e of clergy. Perhaps most troubling, increasing numbers of Catholic s came to assume that forming one's conscience on sexual matters was an essentially private endeavor . The celibate clergy were inevitably, if unfairly, discredited as authorities on sexual morality by the advent of Humanae vitae . And since most retreated into silence in the wake of the encyclical , many priests inadvertently compounded their marginal sta tus as moral arbiters . The same might be said of their bish -
15 April 23, 2004
October, Last Sai l
Among the last boats in the harbor, our s seems glad for human company : you board, and El Poeta rocks you lovingly. I watch you from the pebbled beach, unsure . But soon enough we're sailing out, the day unpromising and cold; the air is gray, the sun a milky yellow pearl inside an oyster's opalescent shell . We roun d the great curved sandy point, the open se a monotonously green, while back on shore the distant oranges and browns explai n the ancients ' understanding of the earth' s emotions: anger mixed with mourning, los s so vast that only god could suffer it . I look to you for comfort, but your eyes prefer how the horizon never ends .
Rafael Camp o
ops . Shortly after the promulgation of Humanae vitae, almost no Catholic leaders were talking publicly about contraception—not bishops, not parish priests, not even moral theolo gians . The married laity were on their own, or so the silenc e seemed to say . Silence on contraception inevitably led to an even greate r silence—this one around the subject of sexual morality generally. At a time of almost breathtaking change in sexual values and behavior, church leaders had little to offer beyon d what theologian Gerard Sloyan has called "prohibitions with out explanations ." Among the laity, the paralysis of leader ship further eroded an already weakened sense of connectednes s to the institutional church . Numerous factors were at play, of course . With Catholics no longer a "ghettoized" population, they were vulnerable as never before to America's individualist ethos and its growing climate of suspicion towar d institutional authority . But nothing was as devastating t o the church's credibility as Humanae vitae and the paralysis it generated . No religious leadership can afford to be see n by large numbers of its putative flock as irrelevant to their most immediate moral dilemmas . The leadership vacuum took its heaviest toll on paris h priests . They had begun the decade of the 1960s in an apparent state of robust confidence, especially with regard to
sexual morality—the issue around which the lion's share o f confessions then centered . None of the priests I interviewed remembers doubting the teaching on contraception prior t o the council, save occasional private regrets about the teach ing's rigidity . Period literature suggests that this was tru e of American priests generally . Most looked to refinement s of the rhythm method to solve the problems they regularly confronted as confessors . Nearly all were proud of havin g been gentle confessors, even with "recidivist" penitents . None anticipated that birth control would soon erupt as the single most divisive issue in the church. Nor did they expect a debate over celibacy, an issue with obvious relevance t o the looming debate over contraception. Once that debate was joined, it led to a marked diminution of confidence and even moral authority for growing numbers of priests. It was lay experience, after all, that ultimately set the moral agenda with regard to birth control . A celibate clergy seemed more and more irrelevant to the debate, not only in the eyes of the liberal laity but in those of many priests themselves . Growing numbers of priests, in deed, found it hard to square their celibacy with the positive theology of marital sex that increasingly framed the debate . Did the celibate's moral witness not suffer by comparison to the other-centeredness of married love? Was the very ideal of celibacy not premised on a truncated, eve n damaging, view of the psyche? Young priests in particula r were more and more troubled by such doubts . Difficulties in the confessional intensified the problem . It was not just that penitents were fewer in number, a tren d that was evident by 1966. More painful was one's inability to give firm guidance to the many penitents who still asked , and now sometimes argued, about church teaching on con traception. By the mid-1960s, that teaching looked to many priests to be in a genuine state of doubt, although most bish ops were instructing their clergy to uphold it . In the circumstances, many priests believed they could go no further tha n telling their more assertive penitents to follow their consciences . Humanae vitae thus had the effect, particularly for younge r men, of exacerbating an already corrosive crisis of priestly morale and identity . Roughly half of American priests, according to a 1969 survey, disagreed with the encyclical's con clusions . But relatively few were willing to make thei r disagreement public, either for fear of a punitive bishop o r reluctance to put a tolerant ordinary on the spot . Given the period's romance with authenticity, it was almost inevitable that many such men should feel a bit cowardly, and even dishonest . They might feel superfluous, too, faced with a mostly empty confessional and a laity seemingly at hom e with its newly won moral independence . Coupled with a flood of resignations from the priesthood and sharply diminished seminary enrollments, the situation was terribly damaging to clerical morale. By the late 1960s, growing num bers of men were doubting the meaning, and not simply the efficacy, of their lives as priests . Humanae vitae might best be understood as having terminated a necessary and, in fact, long-delayed conversatio n
16 April 23, 2004
within the church . What is sex for? What is the nature o f marriage? We need answers to these questions today no les s urgently than in the 1960s . We know that reverence for lif e must lie at the heart of an authentically Christian sexua l ethic. But what does this mean on a crowded planet, wher e women rightly claim equality, and reproductive technologies are evolving with bewildering rapidity? For a brief fe w years in the mid-1960s, American Catholics did indeed talk about these problems as a church. True, the conversation wa s sometimes awkward and even painful . Necessary conversations often are, especially when they center simultaneously on sex and authority . Too much anger attended the conver sation's latter stages, a reflection in part of a souring nation al mood . But it was a genuine conversation nonetheless, t o which many Catholics—priests as well as laity—brough t their most intimate concerns and experiences . When this conversation was abruptly terminated, the effect was to isolate its various parties and exacerbate thei r suspicions of one another . Most of the laity simply claime d the realm of sexual decision making as peculiarly their own, relieved on one level by clerical silence, but resentful of it too . I am not the only Catholic parent to have felt abandone d by the church as I steered my offspring through the churning seas of adolescence after the "sexual revolution ." Th e bishops, for their part, mostly retreated behind high administrative walls, venturesome for a time about social justic e but oddly disconnected about sex . The result has been a nowpervasive tendency for the laity to regard their bishops as not only remote but even dishonest, at least on the sexua l front—a problem that preceded the current sexual-abus e scandals and contributed to the laity's outrage over the behavior of bishops . or priests, the abrupt termination of the conversation was especially isolating . Their status as moral authorities was disastrously undermined , as we have just seen . And their own pressin g issues with regard to sex—mandatory celibacy, first and foremost—were essentially swept aside . The priests I interviewed bore frequent, if sometimes inadvertent, witness to the frustrations thereby generated . A surprising number were eager to talk to me, despite the delicate nature of my subject matter . Some actually spoke in terms of unfinished business—or a truncated conversation, if you will . Others , after first asserting that they did not remember much about pastoral practice in the distant 1950s, were subsequentl y moved to detailed recollections of their long-ago privat e wrestling with the birth-control problem . Perhaps most important, nearly all evinced distress at what they saw as th e church's present-day impotence about sexual morality. Rather like the laity, many of these men felt abandoned by th e church—fumbling as finite individuals with the hard prob lems of contemporary sexuality, wondering what words t o speak to the seemingly alien young . That the priests I interviewed were so admirable mad e their distress especially hard to contemplate. They were ob -
viously a self-selected group, given my subject matter and mode of locating interviewees . Typically I asked priest-colleagues or the interviewees themselves for the names of like ly prospects . I did not strive for geographic balance, given my limited research budget . The majority came from th e upper Midwest, where progressive currents in Catholicis m have long been particularly strong . At the same time, these were men who had stayed in the priesthood, even as man y of their confreres were leaving. And few gave voice to radical views, whether on theology or politics . What were they like—my self-selected population of priest interviewees? To a man, my informants were gracious an d intelligent ; nearly all were widely read ; most were psycho logically acute . They exhibited a splendid sense of humo r too, usually of the dry variety . With one or two exceptions, they were deeply pastoral in orientation—immersed in the lives of their far too numerous parishioners, defining thei r priesthood in terms of service. Even those who were officially retired were still actively involved in parish ministry — happy, in many instances, to have surrendered th e administrative burdens of a pastorate for a life wholly centered on liturgy, Christian education, and various parish activities . But for all their energy and commitment, the priest s I spoke with were often uncertain about the efficacy of their ministry and deeply unhappy about their relations with authority in the church. It has been a great comfort for me to think of them in these dispiriting days . Yet I have often wondered about their cur rent mood . Do they feel even more estranged from their bishops? Even more uncertain about their role in the lives of man y of the laity, perhaps especially the young? On both counts, I suspect the answer is yes . All the more reason, then, not to present them—as an episcopal fait accompli—with "an easily understandable booklet" explaining why contraception is alway s wrong . Priests like these deserve better. So does the laity.
"I 'm riot sure ,Iu aai
Itamllu I/- v e /Fee
ulunn't) nu /list ~irr 1
April 23, 2004
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