The U. S. Catholic hierarchy, an exclusive, mostly-Irish club of 271 members, met last month in a most un-club-like atmosphere. There were unprecedented clergy and laity sit-ins out in the lobby, pickets, 100 hungry reporters, and fringe meetings of liberal, traditionalist, and black lobbies.

Much of this democratic ferment was over birth control, and when the bishops released their long-awaited response to Pope Paul’s July encyclical against artificial methods, both sides claimed victory. It was an odd tribute to the stylish ambiguity of the drafting committee headed by Pittsburgh’s John Wright, leading hierarchy theologian.

The probable results: dissatisfaction on the left, frustration on the right, and confusion among the average laymen in the middle who are accustomed to getting moral instruction without having to look through a glass darkly. Rather than closing the case, the U. S. and foreign developments seemed merely a prelude to a crisis in Vatican authority.

The bishops’ 17,000-word pastoral letter, in the mode of Pope Paul, combined conservatism in birth control with liberalism on peace and international affairs. The U. S. bishops, cautious to a fault on internal church controversies, appear ready to escalate their advice to secular society.

Since the bishops’ statement on birth control followed so closely the substance of Paul’s encyclical, the liberal victory claims may seem far-fetched.

All twenty-one national hierarchies that have issued statements generally endorse the Pope’s decree. What matters is where they go from there. On the eve of the American bishops’ meeting, the French hierarchy professed ritual loyalty to the Vatican, then winked and said:

“Contraception can never be a good. It is always a disorder, ...

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