Michael Novak has a thoughtful article on "dissent" in the Catholic Church today. (BTW, I've noticed that the headlines and teasers for Novak's NRO articles on the Chuch make them seem much more conservative than they are. Just an observation...)
One important distinction Novak makes is between "dissent-as-rebellion" and honest questioning like he engaged in about contraception. After all there's a big difference between saying, "There's a lot of women who I think would make great priests. Why doesn't the Church allow them to?" and "The sexist, patriarchal Church must release the stranglehold that prevents women from becoming priests if they want me or anyone else to listen to them!" The former comes from an honest (though some might say misguided) love of the Church. The latter comes from contempt.
Honest dissent must be part of the Church, otherwise it cannot improve. The problem isn't the presence of dissent, it's the absence of assent. Too often, those questioning a doctine of the Church are called names rather than patiently taught the reasons for the teachings. I think Andrew Sullivan has a point, here. When questions are met with name calling and confusion, people get more frustrated, lose respect for the teaching, and devolve into a "dissent-as-rebellion" mindset.
Where I disagree with Sullivan is that I believe there a good and beautiful reasons behind the Church's teachings; we just don't hear them enough. We back away from arguments, or resort to name calling. We need to trust in the beauty of the teaching, and we need to trust in the openness of our audience. We need not be afraid of an honest debate, since the beauty and value of the Church's teaching will shine through.
For example, both my wife and I have abstained from intercourse until we got married last year, and we are both so glad we did. We are free to pursue our lives with each other without having to worry about STD's or children from previous relationships. We have given ourselves completely to each other, and it's a beautiful thing. I never saw it as a terrible cross to bear, but an action consistent with the person I wanted to become.
We also do not use contraception, and we plan on never doing so. We have learned the ovulation method of NFP, and we believe in it. Yes, the charting is a pain sometimes, but we are happy to give to each other completely, including our fertility.
Now, if more Catholics who follow the Church's teaching could come forward and tell their stories, and relate the freedom and joy that comes from living it, maybe we could win the debate. But we don't. Why? Maybe because we feel like we shouldn't talk about our sex lives. Maybe because we don't want to seem like we're bragging. Maybe we're afraid to be perceived as "judging" others who have made different choices. Whatever it is, we need to get over it. Because the public perception is that most Catholics don't follow the Church's teachings, and those that do are martyrs who are either sexually frustrated or stuck at home with 12 kids. And that needs to change, now!
Dissenting form the Church should not be comfortable place for any Catholic to be, and it isn't for most of us. Yes, those who find themselves at odds with the Church have a responsibility to properly inform their consciences, but what's wrong with us helping them do that? I can think of few better examples of doing God's work.
Let's teach and instruct with patience and courage, and proclaim the Good News. Let's not take short-cuts by calling people names, but do our duty, despite its difficulty.