The Roman Catholic Church’s desire to avoid trendiness and pandering is commendable, and distinguishes it from many other churches. The need to encourage the most principled and self-disciplined of the faithful is strong and admirable. I do not underestimate, and am not qualified to discuss, the theological arguments involved. But there are insurmountable problems with an enunciated principle of sexuality that everyone knows is largely ignored in practice and practically unnecessary, and that assists the Church’s numerous and influential enemies in discounting its moral influence as the principal ark of the Christian message. The Church’s official position on contraception enables its enemies to portray it as an archaic society for the propagation of chaste humbug by an esoteric fraternity of superannuated clergymen in antiquarian costumes.
There must be a dogmatically respectable way to execute a dignified climb-down and declare the sexual act a consequential moral commitment appropriate to and generally reserved to marriage, but sometimes unexceptionable when undertaken with contraceptive precautions, and reprehensible only if entered into wantonly. By clinging to the objection to contraception, even among married couples, the Church conveys the false impression of wishing to make sex risky and inaccessible, of opposing useful science, and of putting its hostility to safe sex ahead of its mortal opposition to abortion, a much more defensible and important cause that would be directly assisted by ending the failed war on contraception. The Roman Catholic Church, with all respect to the long traditions involved, should not be in the business of appearing to be the party of joyless behavioral philistinism, and should not needlessly subject itself to unjust imputations of hypocrisy. The secondary controversy over an all-male clergy can probably be dealt with by laicizing more activities with equal opportunities for women.
The Church’s most febrile critics seem not to grasp two important points. The first is that the retention of the opposition to contraception, and even the terrible public-relations and financial debacle of the sexual-abuse scandals, have not strangled Church attendance or clerical recruitment, which are in both cases, and in most places, steady or reviving. The take-away message is not the parlous condition of Catholicism but its indestructibility, provided reforms address the most sensible concerns and do not consist of groveling to the convenience of mere congregationalism. The correct balance between reform and conservation will regain upward momentum, as will Rome’s preeminence among religious institutions generally. The Church’s enemies are not so much other denominations now, but the fervent atheists, and they cannot grasp that human nature will always provide a majority of people who acknowledge the existence of spiritual forces and of some religious reality worthy of acknowledgment, and even of worship.
The second large point Catholicism’s enemies miss is the utility of a Church Militant to Western civilization, whether the skeptics believe any of it or not. It is disappointing to see the continued appeasement of aggressive Islam by most secular authorities and the absence of a suitably robust sectarian criticism of the intolerance and tendency to violence of radical Islam. Pope Benedict was almost the only prominent world leader who addressed this issue in suitably purposeful terms. A Church Militant, tolerant but strong, and not hobbled by absurd controversies over contraception, will be a mighty rampart against the outrageous gibe of Islam that the West is a completely profane and blasphemous society. Until it engages in just a couple of needful steps of modernization, the Roman Catholic Church will be denying Western civilization the ability to respond as decisively as it otherwise could and should to these charges, and denying itself the assumption of its rightful status as a contemporary, as well as timeless, moral force. The arch-secularists and the extreme rationalists, like the conquering scientists, have been exposed by events of having sold the world false prospectuses, as the zealots of religious panaceas were before them. The world, whether any of the skeptics realize it or not, and not just the fifth of it made up of Pope Francis’s co-religionists, is awaiting a measured and overdue adjustment of a couple of the Roman canons, from which believers and non-believers will benefit.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and the recently published A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at [email protected].