THE IMPLICATION of the title of this book is that the story of John Rock, so-called father of the oral contraceptive, centers on a conflict with the Catholic Church. Since neither history nor the text bears this out, there seems to be a bit of publisher's hype in the book-flap description: "The personal battle of (a) Catholic struggling with his conscience in speaking to his Church." The image of a valiant rebel battling conscience and authority for the sake of humanity is appealing, but it wasn't quite like that.

Nevertheless, a revolution there certainly was. The discovery and approval of oral contraceptives "amounted," in the words of author Loretta McLaughlin, "to handing over to women, for the first time in history, not only total governance over their sexual behavior, but total privacy . . . Women's sexual prerogatives would equal men's." It also marked the first time that a medical discovery was destined for a social rather than a therapeutic purpose. And it provided the first real hope that population growth could be controlled.

Was it the first fact--that it put women in control of population--that accounted for the lukewarm acceptance of "the pill" in both the science establishment and in population control agencies? "Long after preference studies showed that women here and in developing countries favored the pill over the IUD (interuterine device) the Population Council lagged behind in including the pill in its family planning program," notes McLaughlin. Perhaps, but there were other factors, too.

Such elite proponents of population control as the late John D. Rockefeller preferred the legalizaton of abortion and abortion clinics as a more efficient remedy worldwide (something McLaughlin doesn't mention). Scientists scorned the crash program to find a safe and effective pill as commercial rather than basic research. Drug companies were leery of marketing it because, as Fortune pointed out in 1957, "There may well be some businessmen and economists who would wonder whether it is good for the economy to introduce anything that would reduce the birth rate, at least of Americans."

It is true, however, that at the brink of revelation, just before the final clinical tests, Rock himself "seemed to waver" and veered off into another line of research. He was, the author thinks, buying time, because he was more aware than his fellow researchers of what the moralists' objections to the pill would be. "Sex, indeed, would be set free," McLaughlin writes, "not only for the married, but for any woman, anytime, with anyone."

The pill and its discovery are now so much a matter of history that it is something of a shock to discover that Dr. John Rock is, at 93, very much alive. He is, in a way, like Columbus--a man who happened on something which changed the world while searching for something else. (His original goal was to solve the problem of infertility by studying the reproductive cycle in women.)

Today there are two things he would like people to remember. "First . . . that oral contraceptives not only can prevent births but they can also treat various disorders and prevent miscarriage . . . the pill has also helped give life. Second, the discovery of the oral contraceptive was truly a team effort. . . . But as my friend and colleague Celso(-Ramon) Garcia has said, I am the one who put it across, popularized it to a skeptical world."

Rock today is the man he seems always to have been --appealing, humane, serene, scrupulously honest, faithful to his scientific purpose, generous to his colleagues, humble but clear about his accomplishments, and a conscious and prudent popularizer. His intent in reproductive research was to preserve the family "and, after that, the Family of Man." He himself was always a happy family man, father of a large family, and monogamous by choice "not out of duty or obligation." He also seems to have been more sympathetic to women and sensitive to their problems than the usual man of his generation.

From the beginning of his medical career Rock seems to have dared and pioneered with amazing aplomb in the field of sexuality--a field, according to McLaughlin, considered in the '20s, '30s and '40s unsavory for a gentleman and a physician. To understand how unusual he was, it is necessary, as she says, to understand how delicate the issue of birth control was during most of his career and how much emotional, moral, and religious fervor it aroused. "While a ban on birth control is now most strongly associated with Roman Catholicism and fundamentalist Protestant and Muslim sects . . . the same prohibition was imposed by nearly all Protestant denominations . . . until 1930," when the Anglican Lambeth Conference gave limited approval to "methods of birth control other than abstinence." (Apparently in reaction Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Casti Connubii which banned all "artificial" forms of birth control the next year.) The World Council of Churches did not agree on approval until 1959. As late as 1964 anti-birth control laws were on the books of at least 17 states.

In that context Rock behaved with unusual intrepidity. He seems never to have had a doubt once he had satisfied himself that a scientific procedure was desirable. He conducted a rhythm clinic for Catholic women 20 years before the Church approved rhythm and while it was technically against the law. In 1931 he was the only Catholic physician to sign the petition to repeal the Massachusetts anti-birth-control law--an act that, given the time, would have required far more courage-- if he needed courage--than promoting the pill in the 1960s.

In the two chapters McLaughlin devotes to the controversy within the Church over the pill and birth control, it is apparent Rock was in no awe of clerical strictures. "They have no power over me," he said. "I belong in the Church. No one can put me out of it." Nor was he in any danger from Church authority. He was a layman and a distinguished one, "a medical specialist of great stature and a research pioneer in the human reproductive process." Cardinal Cushing, his own archbishop, had no intention of challenging him, and when he disagreed with Rock's book, The Time Has Come (1963)--a crusading appeal to end the battle over birth control-- the cardinal was careful to say that there were many good things in it.

Disagreement over birth control had long been rife in the Church among bishops and theologians as well as lay people. What Rock did was to speak out publicly on the issue--he was the first one to do so--and others followed. The pill--"a natural contraceptive" as he argued --also changed the grounds of the argument. The furor in the Church delighted the media. Rock, from all accounts, enjoyed the fray--and the resultant attention did much to popularize the pill. The controversy, however, soon went beyond Rock and the pill. It is sometimes forgotten that the report of the Papal Commission which was rejected by Pope Paul VI argued not only for the approval of anovulants like the pill but all forms of birth control. If this book brings the argument back to the former ground, it may be all to the good.

It is surprising that science writer Loretta McLaughlin devotes less time to another debate over the pill--that about its safety--but she does establish its comparative safety and disputes the feminist argument against it. She also touches lightly on Rock's troubles within the Harvard medical community. The book is more a collection of chapters than a biography of either a man or a movement. Embedded in it are fascinating stories such as that of the tragedy-beset life of Rock's brilliant assistant, Miram Menkin. (It is surprising to realize that together they accomplished the first in vitro fertilization in 1944.) Equally interesting is her account of the united effort of two very different women, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger and philanthropist Katherine Dexter McCormick, which made the crash research for the pill possible.