The newly elected president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops said yesterday that Catholic couples who use artificial birth control can remain in good standing in the church.
"We would regard the use of contraceptives as a deviation from the moral law," said Archbishop John R. Roach of St. Paul-Minneapolis. But "if you do [use contraceptives] you are not excluded from unity with the church," he said. He added, however, that using artificial birth control "will require some reconciliation with Almighty God."
Roach's comments did not depart from church teaching, but sought to elaborate the effect of doctrine on Catholics who are unable to comply with it.
The question of the church's attitude toward its members who fail to observe the ban on artificial birth control -- estimated at close to 80 percent in this country -- has emerged several times during the annual meeting of the bishops, which began here Monday.
The birth-control controversy, which some church scholars maintain has driven substantial numbers from the church in the last decade, erupted again last month as a painful controversy during the worldwide Synod of Bishops in Rome, which met to consider questions relating to the family. As Pope John Paul II has done repeatedly, the bishops upheld the birth control ban and called on Catholics around the world to abide by it.
The new leader of the Bishops panel, who made his comments in a press conference, was one of several bishops who took pains to try to clarify the teaching of the church on the birth control question and how it would affect individual Catholics.
Roach, a moderate leader in the church who heads an archdiocese of more than half a million Catholics, was chosen on the second ballot yesterday by his fellow bishops to head the American hierarchy. Bishop James W. Malone of Youngstown, Ohio, was elected vice-president.
While the reaffirmation by the bishops in Rome of the birth control ban was widely reported, its context and its effect on Catholics unable to live by it was not made clear, according to bishops here who participated in the Synod.
Auxiliary Bishop J. Francis Stafford of Baltimore, one of the five American delegates to the Rome Synod, in his report to the conference yesterday, blamed some of the misunderstanding on the fact that American Catholics "are not familiar enough with the process of the Synod," which is based on church tradition and Roman law.
"The problem is that moral norms [established by the church] are unconsciously conveyed by our people into penal laws," he told the bishops' gathering. He said that the synod was meant to be an "open and free" forum in which churchmen from around the world could exchange views, evaluate each others' positions and ultimately offer counsel and advice to the pope in questions pertaining to family life.
"The process differs from what Americans are accustomed to," he said, a factor contributing to misunderstandings by observers. "In America we seem to be involved more in the dialectic, confrontational style . . . In Rome it was more of a building of consensus -- free and open and sometimes tension-filled but . . . a very beautiful process."
Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco, retiring president of the American Bishops' Conference and also a delegate to the Rome meeting, characterized the birth control teaching the American church as in a stage of controversy, in which the doctrine is challenged, attacked, defended . . . But that does not mean that the teaching office of the church is in doubt" as to the validity of the birth control doctrine.
Bishop Stafford, who described the church's position on birth control as "the normative ideal . . . both the ideal and the norm," acknowledged that in his own ministry he found that it is "more difficult for young people to live up to this norm, because many of them have not yet gained the psychological or spiritual maturity to live with that norm."