It is almost a year since Pope John Paul II began his visit here with renewed hope and closed it with old warnings.

It is almost a year now since this charming man played kindly Polish politician for the overture, and stern traditional Father for the finale.

It is almost a year since he told American Catholics again that birth control was evil.

What has happened in these 12 months? Did American Catholics throw away their contraceptives? Did husbands and wives turn away from each other in the middle of the night, fearful that pleasure without procreation was a sin? Hardly.

Perhaps the pope hammered a wedge of guilt between some loving bodies. But most shook their heads and continued living at an emotional distance from their Church, picking and choosing from its teachings for their lives. As one woman said to me last October, "The pope is in Rome and I am on the pill."

Now, 12 months later, the American bishops are trying again to bridge this gap. In a delicate speech of loyal dissent, Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco told the Vatican this week that "a very large number of men and women of good will do not accept the teaching on the intrinsic evil of each and every use of contraceptives."

He was understanding it. In this country, a full 76.5 percent of Catholic women are using birth control, and almost all of them are using a form condemned by the pope.

The bishop said that the "impasse on this moral teaching . . . is harmful to the Church. Moreover, he mentioned realitly: "We cannot credibly treat the problem of contraception without clear and honest recognition of the grave demographic problem of out times."

There is a tendency to ignore this argument, as if two ancient enemies were still carrying on an endless debate in exile. But it isn't irrelevant when we think about the power of the Church in the bulging Third World or when we think about our own fate.

The profound controversy is about the future and about our past, our behavior and our psyche. It is about birth control versus sex control.

The dominant attitude of the Catholic Church, which was, after all, the Christian Church throughout the Middle Ages, was that sexual love was evil. Even inside marriage.

There are examples sprinkled through Church history of theologians excommunicated for preaching that marriage was as virtuous as virginity. There were theologians who believed it would be better for the human race to die out than to continue reproducing through sin.

It wasn't only St. Augustine who described the marital sexual act as innocent, but passion as sinful. To Gregory the Great, pleasure was also the evil in the sexual act. To St. Jerome, the only good of marriage was that it produced virgins.

Repression, then, was the original birth control advocated by the Church. That is not too surprising: it was, for one thing, the only reliable method.

Curiously enough, it was the Protestants, including the much-maligned Puritans, who were the first sexual liberators. Scientists were the second.

Even today, it is not hard to read the anxiety of the celibate male Catholic hierachy. There is the fear that when pregnancy is under control, sex is out of control: the belief that it is sex, the powerful human urge, that should be contained, not its "natural consequence."

This is surely why the Church has made such minimal efforts even to share and spread the more sophisticated tools of its own "natural" birth control.

In industrialized countries, only two or three generations have been able to experience their sexuality with less fear of pregnancy. These new freedoms also bring choices and sometimes anxieties. We've had to find our way through new realities, struggling for a new set of values. Living with "freedom," we have had to create our own limits.

But we are not going back, because we do not want to go back. The question is whether our choices will be shared with the poor, overpopulated countries where each new child may mean less food for the existing children -- where new life can really mean marginal life, even starvation.

The Vatican surely believes it is favoring morality over secular "reality." The pope votes for "self-control" and against birth control.

The American bishops have asked the Vatican to listen, just to listen, to the opinions of men in the Church. But the Church must also open its ears to the oldest longings of people to both free their sexual feelings and control their lives.