Roman Catholics: Soft Line on Contraception

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The Pope's encyclical against contraception is continuing to meet remarkable resistance from Catholics on all levels of the church. A sharp reminder of that fact occurred when Pat rick Cardinal O'Boyle was the speaker at the Sunday noon Mass at St. Mat thew's Cathedral in Washington. Instead of delivering a sermon, he entered the pulpit to read a pastoral letter that, it had been announced in advance, would exhort the faithful to obey the encyclical. As O'Boyle began to speak, about 400 worshipers, roughly one-third of the congregation, rose and walked out of the church. Despite this stunning rebuke, prearranged by two local organizations, the cardinal calmly delivered his message, which warned against "false prophets" who contend that birth control is a matter for individual conscience.* "Even a few of my brother bishops in other lands," O'Boyle lamented, "seem to have adopted 'the new morality.' "

There are more than a few. The fact is that almost every national Catholic episcopate to issue an interpretation of Humanae Vitae has modified, subtly or otherwise, the Pope's decree that "each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life." The episcopal pronouncements have been careful to stress the Pope's teaching authority. But they also emphasize the pri macy of individual conscience and have said, in effect, that Catholic couples who feel duty-bound to practice contraception may do so and still remain in the church. Thus Paul's teaching is being presented more as an ideal to be striven for than as an absolute norm to be followed.

No Damnation. The latest to pro mote a soft line on contraception are the hierarchies of Austria, Britain and Canada which released statements last week. The Austrian episcopate dutifully commended rhythm or sexual abstinence as the "most proper means" of family planning. Nonetheless, the bish ops added that Catholics who "for ethical reasons" reject the pontifical guide lines "need not necessarily feel that they have separated themselves from God's love." Conscientious objectors to Humanae Vitae may continue to receive Communion without confessing that they practice contraception. The only conditions are that they keep their decision to themselves, refrain "from sowing confusion in the ranks of the faithful," and continually reassess the moral propriety of their course.

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