THIS WORK is yet another signal that the Roman Catholic Church has changed in the last generation just as much as it did in the 16th century. The action has been confusing, however, because it is the bishops -- the successors of those who built the fortresslike church of the Counter-Reformation -- who are largely responsible for dismantling it in our own day. They have not done this deliberately, for of all Christians they are the most deeply committed to institutional continuity. Many of them will be discomfited by this book, which is nonetheless part of the renewal they themselves authored but whose full repercussions they could not foresee.

We stand, in other words, at a point of discontinuity in the history of the church. Were it not for its practiced capacity to live with the widest variety of adherents, the divisions within the church, reflecting the breakdown of the once rigid and highly effective discipline of Catholic life, would be far more obvious.

It is clear that the church never intended to allow the liberal and sometimes unfocused ideas about human sexuality that are found in this book to be part of its teaching to humankind. For centuries it has been more sure of itself, tougher and, if wrong, at least decidedly and doggedly wrong about the nature and sinfulness of some practices discussed here. This book, which could hardly have been thought about, much less commissioned, by a professional society of theologians a generation ago -- it was done through a committee of the Catholic Theological Society of America -- discusses a wide variety of sexual practices in an almost tortured modern way. While the authors obviously are dedicated to the church and want to make a case for these revisionist teachings as consonant nant with Catholic doctrine throughout history, the effort, finally, is strained. Written, for the most part, in the style of a theological manual, it represents a real and significant break in what the church has taught about sexual morality for hundreds of years, although the attitudes it expresses have become widespread among contemporary Catholics.

These pages reflect what many parish priests are telling or accepting from their parishioners all over the country. Pastoral theology is an existential specialty through which the priest on the front lines of human experience translates the dogmas of the church in the unique situations he finds in real life, and Human Sexuality does not go beyond what have become commonplace interpretations in many Catholic parishes. That too suggests that much has changed about Catholicism -- largely unnoticed merely because there has been no dramatic public schism. The doddering Archbishop Lefebvre in Switzerland represents no great threat to the Catholic Church; the fact that so many hundreds of thousands of persons would easily accept much of what this book says about contraception, masturbation, and other sexual experiences is a far sharper indication that the teaching authority of Catholic bishops, at least in this moral area, has been effectively bypassed.

One could yearn for a stronger confrontation, for a debate in which the underlying problems could also be discussed, especially in view of the spongy quality of so many of the opinions expressed by the authors. Some readers, even modern Catholics who have developed a less guilt-ridden way of living with their church, can only despair at the "human potential" genre of thought and language that is scattered through the pastoral reflections. It is also clear that the authors, despite their good intentions, have very little real feeling for the psychological dimension of life; they write, like so many theologians, as if life were a rational and well-ordered affair --a confessor confronted with bestiality, "would do well by looking for the cause that produces this form of behavior and attempting to eliminate the source of the problem." It is surely unwise to attempt to have priests combine their work as confessors (hearing, judging, forgiving sins) with the work of counseling, which is psychological treatment for emotional problems. To think that, aside from using as much human understanding as possible, the ordinary confessor can also be a quasitherapist, places an unnecessary burden on priests and only confuses our understanding of the distinction between moral and psychological matters.

The book can never satisfy everyone precisely because it represents an effort to speak about the theology of intimacy in an old-fashioned form with a modish and optimistic vocabulary. Something of the mystery and tragedy of life is missing. Serious novelists, poets and film makers may offer deeper moral insights than the work of theologians trying to make contact with human experience. But one should be grateful that the book helps to articulate a major change in the relationship between contemporary men and women and institutionalized religion. It should be read with an awareness of the break in history which it documents.