In the recent controversy over U.S. government health care policies vs. religious freedom, it seems like the Church's position regarding artificial birth control is front and center - treated both as the essence of the argument and as a red herring distracting from the essence of the argument.
One hears the illogical argument that "most" U.S. Catholics do not subscribe to the Church's doctrine. Then I ask, "Is it the government's role to interpret religious doctrine according to a poll of the opinions of the 'faithful?'"
The bishops' more lucid argument is that it's not about birth-control. Rather it is about the Church's right to function in the world, in Her various ministries, in Her own institutions according to the dictates of Her teaching.
My own opinion is that it IS about birth-control after all.
Until the 1930's all Christian Churches and denominations condemned artificial contraception. The Anglican Church's Lambeth Conference in 1908 stated that one cannot speak of contraception without "repugnance." Twenty-two years later the Lambeth Conference approved of artificial contraception. And by 1931, virtually all Protestant groups agreed with this revolutionary opinion.
In 1968 Pope Paul VI issued the famous encyclical "Humanae Vitae." The encyclical reiterated the Church's continuous teaching on the matter, despite expert advice which had suggested that the Church change Her teaching.
The response to Pope Paul's encyclical was swift. I was still in high school at the time and I recall the confusion. Some priests were openly telling their parishioners that they could ignore the document. Others were telling penitents that they could not receive Holy Communion if they did not stop using "the pill." Society at large cast His Holiness and the hierarchy at large in the role of mediaeval fools. Some theologians and professors were quite public in their rejection of the document and its teaching. And many priests told their people to use their conscience as their guide. (This would be perfectly sound IF the consciences were informed by at least reading Humanae Vitae and studying and seeking sound spiritual direction. But the prevailing idea seemed to be "if you're okay with it, go ahead.")
Perhaps naive, I recall being stunned by the reaction. Growing up hitherto, I had often heard the phrase "The Church teaches..." - and that ended any discussion. The phrase "Sister said..." had the gravity and finality of "Roma locuta est." In 1968 it no longer seemed to matter what the Church taught. Indeed, "Sister says..." had lost all currency. The faithful were being told that we had "grown up" and could now think for ourselves. We were no longer dumb sheep or lisping children. This all following an age when we children would not dare go to a movie unless Dad first checked it out with the Church's approval ratings given by the "Legion of Decency."
Sociologically speaking many exciting papers could be written about American Catholicism in the '60's and '70's. Society had become increasing suspicious of Authority. Demonstrations against the govenment were a daily occurence. Soldiers and police officers were routinely spat upon at parades. Catholics were being sold a bill of goods by countless wolves using the sheep's clothing of "renewal."
Humanae Vitae should have been received by bishops, clergy and faithful with at least an open mind and heart- certainly with respect and eagerness to discover what our "teacher-in-chief had to offer us." As Catholics, if the document challenged our own opinions or ideas, we would have the obligation to study it and to pray and to try and conform our life according to its precepts.
But society at large would have none of this.
Instead it became a discussion about hormones, chemicals, barriers, and how antedeluvian the Church was in its out-dated attitude. Galileo became the hero of the argument. And the conscientious couple struggling with this issue found themselves at sea.
The germ of the teaching is that sexual activity belongs in the context of loving and mystical (read "sacramental") commitment, cooperation in God's creation, respect for one's spouse and for the mystery of human life, openness to new life and ongoing spiritual warfare. Though only 1 out of millions of U.S. Catholics, I recall NONE of this being taught or even recommended from the pulpits of the Diocese of Brooklyn at the time.
It was all about birth control and whether I may and whether I might. In the same year that Humanae Vitae was published, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara - now president of the world bank, announced that foreign aid would be given with a preference for those countries which promoted contraception. Admirably, one Latin American president responded that it was insulting to assume that money could buy off the consciences of the faithful in his country. Though I am not particularly prone to conspiracy theories, Mr. McNamara's proposal does appear to be part of a wider agenda.
Now, separated from a sacramental and deifying theology and a deep understanding of human love and God's eternal wisdom, the ultimate teaching is this: "Sexual activity need no longer be confined to marriage, nor seen as holy and God-cooperating." The bearing of children is a matter of convenience and economics. Sex became recreational. Sex became "liberated." We witnessed a "sexual revolution." Adult responsibility dropped by the way-side. Adultery and fornication, cohabitation, anonymous sex, all became options for the 20th century American. Marriage need no longer be confined to the complimentarity of "opposite" sexes. Children were and are being born out of wedlock at alarming rates. Divorce is endemic.
The Church has become at odds with society. And society has become predictably more and more secular and even pagan. Now the government's health issues are directly opposed to the Church's teaching and the government is trying to insist that the Church conform. We are being instructed that in the modern world, the Church no longer has to "right" to conform to Her own precepts! It is reminiscent of the Soviet policy whereby churches could remain open and priests could perform liturgical rites so long as they neither preached the Gospel nor taught Christian doctrine to children.
The Church Herself is handicapped because Her leadership has often relinquished any serious role of teaching and of moral authority. And it is - after all - about "birth control," because the controversy has separated the average Catholic from the "mind" of the Church. And many of the aberrant teachings and practices prevalent in society have been embraced by the faithful who have had no one to guide them except the opinions and examples of their favorite sit-coms - or have been taught that guidance and doctrine are obsolescent.
[I am reminded of a cartoon from the '60's which depicted a father and his outlandishly dressed hippy-son. The caption: "But, Dad, I want to be different like everybody else!"]
Meanwhile, all of the nonconformist anti-establishment activists of the 60's and 70's have been proven most conforming and sheep-like in following the whirwinds of changing opinion and convention. And it is the minority of faithful Christians seeking lives of sanctification and spiritual nourishment, who live their lives according to the patterns of nature and nature's God, who truly believe and trust in Him, who struggle and seek Him - it is they who are truly revolutionary and not fooled by the false promises of this world.