From the Archives: A Bitter Pill
In the April 23, 2004, issue of Commonweal, Leslie Woodcock Tentler wrote on American Catholics and contraception:
I want … to contest the bishops' seeming assumption that collectively reiterating the church's teaching on contraception will have only transitory negative effects on the laity. "The church teaches lots of things that we don't practice," Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput told a news conference, where he acknowledged that most Catholic couples 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 young to have adult memories of the 1950s, when a majority of married Catholics were living, or trying to live, in accord with church teaching. Partly for this reason, he—along with many younger advocates of a harder line on contraception—simply 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 of marital sex is not the same as being accused of failures with regard to charity. But even older readers of Commonweal may not remember how much damage the debate over contraception did to the parish clergy.
At a time of almost breathtaking change in sexual values and behavior, church leaders had little to offer beyond what theologian Gerard Sloyan has called "prohibitions without explanations." Among the laity, the paralysis of leadership further eroded an already weakened sense of connectedness to the institutional church.
About the Author
Leslie Woodcock Tentler, author of Catholics and Contraception: A History, is professor of history at the Catholic University of America.