A Midwestern Roman Catholic bishop has struck a responsive chord among some Maryland Catholics. He recently compared his church to a "dysfunctional family" because it refuses to consider the laity's views on birth control.
"I'm with the good bishop," said Daniel D. Gage Sr., a member of the liturgy committee at St. Vincent de Paul Church in downtown Baltimore. "The lack of communication between the hierarchy and the people is terrible."
He said he strongly disagreed with his church's stand against the use of contraceptives.
Encouraging limits on population growth "is not just a nice thing to do, it may actually have a positive moral element," he said. "Population limitation can be humane."
Mr. Gage, a father and grandfather, added, "I don't believe in a feel-good philosophy. But young people think they are immortal, and they take a lot of persuading. Not to tell them to protect themselves, if they feel they must be sexually active, is immoral."
The bishops are "merely signing a death warrant" when they oppose the use of condoms by men at risk from the AIDS virus who would endanger a sexual partner, he said. "You don't love the sinner if you send him to his death."
Mr. Gage's views place him among the estimated 80 percent of Catholic lay people, according to many polls, who disagree with their bishops on the birth-control issue.
Patricia Ashburn is on the evangelization committee at West Baltimore's St. Benedict's Parish. She said her four children -- three of them teen-gers -- "know that I don't adhere to the church teaching about birth control."
She added, "There should be discussions about this between the clergy and the laity, but priests stay away from the subject to avoid a rift. Birth control is something that is sidestepped, at least on the parish level. Never in any parish I've been in, at least three, have I ever heard birth control discussed."
It was Bishop Kenneth E. Untener of Saginaw, Mich., who made the dysfunctional-family comparison last month at a meeting of the Catholic hierarchy in Washington. He was commenting on a 370-page theological paper on sex education that was eventually adopted by a majority of the 300 bishops.
A task force headed by Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop William C. Newman took 2 1/2 years to write the paper. It encourages both parents and schools to explain Catholic teachings on sexuality to children, and it reiterates the Catholic ban on "all contraceptive medications, devices or surgeries which directly cause the act of intercourse to be sterile."
Only "natural family planning" -- what is sometimes called the rhythm method -- is allowed.
The paper expresses a hope that the laity will find its arguments against the use of contraceptives compelling. "But in fact," Bishop Untener said, "it is obvious that many lay people, many priests, even some bishops, are not convinced. In this regard, the church is like a dysfunctional family that refuses to talk about a problem of which every member is aware."
The Saginaw bishop told his colleagues that the Holy Spirit acts not only through the teaching authority vested in them but through the people in the pews. He said he recently asked a group of lay people if they agreed with the document's section on birth control. "Twenty-two of 23 people had serious questions," Bishop Untener said.
He urged the bishops to listen to what the laity was trying to tell them. The credibility of the Catholic Church is at stake, he said.
Bishop Newman said in an interview that he considered the new sexuality document an instrument for increased dialogue between clergy and lay people. While it was intended to set forth the church's fundamental principles on sexuality, parents helped write it, he said. Of the 24 people on the task force that Bishop Newman chaired, seven were parents. The others were five bishops, including himself, four priests, four nuns and four lay people who were not parents.
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops approved most of the document as drafted but voted to downplay its emphasis on the role of individual conscience in decisions about sexuality.
This sentence in the draft that had been offered by Bishop Newman's committee was eliminated: "In the end, each person is bound to live with and to stand by his or her own discernment and perception of God's will." Substituted was this: "Each person has an obligation to form a
correct conscience. It is the responsibility of Catholic educators to assist them in the process of articulating church teaching in its entirety and in its integrity."
Sylvia Eastman, a St. Vincent's parish leader who helped collect 500 Baltimore signatures on a Call for Reform in the Catholic Church in February, said the Vatican's suspicion of the laity's influence was a chief reason for that petition, issued by 4,500 Catholics nationally.