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Catholic Women and Birth Control

April 14, 2011

The Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood, has released a new report on religion and contraceptive use.  (Hat tip to CathNewsUSA.)  The report finds that only 2% of Catholic women use natural family planning, and that this number does not vary significantly when frequency of mass attendance is taken into account.   The figure rises to 3% among married Catholic women.

There may be discrepancy caused by the way in which the data was gathered: this data is for women who have been sexually active in the three months prior to the survey and who are “at risk” (a technical term) of unintended pregnancy—i.e., not pregnant, postpartum, or trying to get pregnant.  I do not want to quibble about survey methodology, since even if we grant that these numbers are wrong by an order of magnitude (and there is no evidence that they are), they would still show that the vast majority of Catholic women use various means of artificial birth control.   And in any event, these results are in agreement with with previous survey data and much anecdotal evidence.

What to make of these results, doctrinally and pastorally?   They represent a singular failure of reception of Catholic moral teaching, one which is remarkable for the way in which it cuts across the metric of religious observance.  In other areas, more frequent mass attendance is generally linked with closer acceptance of even controversial Catholic teaching—-the death penalty being a very good example of this.   Are there other areas where this is not the case:  that is, a rejection of Church teaching which is more or less independent of the engagement of the individual with the life of the community?  (Mass attendance is the best known proxy of this—is it measured in other ways?)  Thoughtful anecdotal evidence is okay, but I would much prefer survey data that would pin such a phenomenon down more precisely.

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44 Comments
  1. brettsalkeld permalink*
    April 14, 2011 9:26 pm

    I wonder how these numbers look across age ranges. My anecdotal experience would have me guessing that Catholic women in their 20s who attend Mass would have a higher use of NFP than women in their 30s and definitely than those in their 40s. Everyone in my parent’s generation used AC without even thinking about it. I think that is changing, however slightly.

  2. M.Z. permalink
    April 14, 2011 10:01 pm

    I’m not sure disobedience is the proper frame to ultimately view this. If I tell me son to eat his vegetables and he refuses, disobedience is the proper frame. This is different. A woman who becomes pregnant faces very real financial and relationship consequences, consequences not born by the Church.

    NFP is heavily marketed. You’re seeing it pop in pre-Cana in a lot of places. NFP when we get down to brass tacks is about not having children. Even conceding NFP’s effectiveness rate, I imagine a lot of couples don’t see the big difference between using the pill not to get pregnant and using NFP not to get pregnant. They see it as the difference between asking please before having mashed potatoes and just taking the stupid potatoes. From a convenience perspective, the pill wins hands down. Maintaining courtesies (or “morality”) can be seen as superfluous.

    As for the youths, my wife recently went to the doctor in preparation for a treatment. When she told the nurse she didn’t use birth control, the nurse gave a shocked expression and said that was the first time she had ever heard that response.

    • April 15, 2011 2:34 am

      NFP when we get down to brass tacks is about not having children.

      Surely this attitude is a contributing factor, not the least because it is simply false. NFP is at least as much, if not more, about having children as about not having them. The very same method is suitable for making conception more likely as to make conception less likely. Said differently, contraception is a failure if someone should conceive while using contraception. On the other hand, NFP is not as such a failure should someone conceive while using NFP. One does not stop using NFP in order to become pregnant; one uses it as much as one had been using the (relatively) infertile periods for the spacing of births.

      In short, for the reasons M.Z. cites, so long as NFP is seen as just another (and relatively more involved) form of contraception, then someone already inclined to a contraceptive act will be more prone to use the more readily available and culturally/commercially promoted artificial contraception.

      I do think we need to query what would constitute a “failure to receive” a teaching. Does fornication among Catholic, e.g., really imply that Catholics reject the Church’s teaching about sex? Ought we not to consider as possible when the baptized report such claims as “not being a good Catholic”? That is, how do we distinguish between those who reject a teaching notionally and those who, while knowing and admitting that a “better” or “holier” person would hold themselves to the Church’s teaching, consider themselves unable to maintain or simply choose to fall below the standard of the Gospel? Asked differently, is the theological category of not receiving a teaching distinguishable from the moral categories of sloth and despair?

    • M.Z. permalink
      April 15, 2011 7:52 am

      The very same method is suitable for making conception more likely as to make conception less likely.

      This is counterintuitive. The number of women who use NFP to achieve pregnancy is quite low. My guess is it is on par with the number of women who consult astrologers to achieve pregnancy. The need for NFP to achieve pregnancy is very low. Don’t get me wrong, I do understand your claim. Your claim is just akin to the claim that a hammer can also be used effectively to prop a window open. It isn’t a persuasive reason in practice to buy a hammer except in exceptional circumstances.

      then someone already inclined to a contraceptive act will be more prone to use
      There is no question that NFP is used with contraceptive intent and it is in fact the predominant cause of its use.

      • April 15, 2011 8:29 am

        Don’t get me wrong, I do understand your claim. Your claim is just akin to the claim that a hammer can also be used effectively to prop a window open. It isn’t a persuasive reason in practice to buy a hammer except in exceptional circumstances.

        No, that is not my claim at all.

        NFP is by its very nature a means to space births, which means precisely both a means of knowing when sexual activity is less likely to result in pregnancy and a means of knowing when sexual activity is more likely to result in pregnancy. People who use NFP do not stop using NFP when they want to have children. NFP is precisely devised to help couples who want to conceive as well as to make conception less likely to allow for a prudent spacing of births. So, this is exactly unlike the scenario you describe, viz. using a hammer to prop open a window. Someone using the knowledge gained from NFP in order to conceive is using NFP exactly how it was meant to be used, even as is someone hoping, here and now, to make conception less likely.

        This is why your claim that “there is no question that NFP is used with contraceptive intent” must be nuanced. If you mean that some people do so use it, then I grant the claim. However, if you mean that NFP is meant as such to be a contraceptive practice (as opposed to a holistic practice including both conception and the spacing of births), and thus to use NFP is to will to contracept, then I deny the claim.

      • Thales permalink
        April 15, 2011 10:16 am

        The number of women who use NFP to achieve pregnancy is quite low. My guess is it is on par with the number of women who consult astrologers to achieve pregnancy. The need for NFP to achieve pregnancy is very low.

        M.Z., not in my experience. You must be very fortunate to not know of couples who have difficulty conceiving. Maybe this strikes particularly close to home for me, because my parents had difficulty conceiving me, and they needed NFP to maximize the probability. And of my Catholic friends and acquaintances, several have had difficulty conceiving — NFP is necessary for them. (And this doesn’t include couples who use NFP to space births, etc., as mentioned by Dominic.)

      • Bruce in Kansas permalink
        April 15, 2011 11:07 am

        @M.Z.: you equate using NFP to get pregnant with using a hammer to prop open a window.

        Seriously? I now question your entire understanding of what practicing NFP entails.

        Couples trying to get pregnant use NFP all the time. Just about every couple we know who is trying to get pregnant uses it.

      • M.Z. permalink
        April 15, 2011 1:09 pm

        The method I have used to impregnate my wife is to have sex. I believe this is the preferred method.

        I do know couples who have had difficulty achieving pregnancy, not that it matters.

        People who use NFP do not stop using NFP when they want to have children.
        They aren’t required to put the thermometer away, but many actually do so when they want to achieve pregnancy. There is nothing wrong with using a hammer to prop a window open. There is nothing wrong with using NFP to achieve pregnancy. For most people, at most times, NFP is entirely superfluous toward the end of creating a child. People don’t carry around hammers so they are prepared to prop open windows; they carry them to pound nails. People typically start using NFP when they don’t want children. That some have found other uses for it doesn’t change things except at the abstract level, something I recognize is important to folks here, but something the folks on the ground are not near as interested.

        I’m not telling anyone to go out and get the pill. There is something goofy about adapting your body to daily existence rather than adapting your existence to your body, not that I’m offering medical advice. I’m not even telling people they shouldn’t use NFP. Go for it. I’ll stick with the rhythm method myself and piss off both camps.

      • Thales permalink
        April 15, 2011 2:20 pm

        This is kind of a bizarre conversation, mostly because I think the phrase “using NFP” is being defined different ways. I define it as “having and using knowledge of a couple’s fertility”. Sure, lots of couples get pregnant without specifically having and using knowledge of their fertility. Great for them. But lots of couples choose to get pregnant by having and using knowledge of their fertility. And some of these couples have difficulty getting pregnant in the first place without that knowledge.

  3. Darwin permalink
    April 14, 2011 10:44 pm

    The kind of curious thing is that they’re vague about the relation of Catholic practice with use of NFP. Overall, women use NFP at a rate of 1%. Catholic women use it at 2% and married Catholic women at 3%. The relevant sections are:

    “Only 2% of Catholic women rely on natural family
    planning; even among Catholic women who attend
    church once a month or more, only 2% rely on this
    method (not shown).”

    and

    “Only 3% of married Catholic women who do not
    want to become pregnant rely on natural family
    planning; 72% use highly effective methods, including
    40% who rely on sterilization.”

    Now, maybe I’m just being suspicious, but it’s interesting to me that they don’t use any measure of level of practice beyond almost never/monthly/weekly church attendence, and yet even that they lump the 30% of Catholic women who go to mass monthly and the 30% who go to mass weekly together when arguing that level of practice doesn’t correlate with use of NFP.

    Layer on top of that that it’s likely that a significant portion of the sexually active weekly mass attending Catholics who do agree with the Church on NFP fall into the “pregnant, post-partum or trying to get pregnant” categories (my wife, has been one of these for six out of the last ten years, and that’s not uncommon among her friends) and I think it’s probably likely that among Catholics who attend mass weekly and are of reproductive age acceptance of NFP over ABC is probably at 5-6x what it is in the wider culture.

    Nonetheless, that means that the weekly mass-going subgroup of Catholics you still have well over 90% of Catholics not knowing or intentionally ignoring Church teaching on the issue. I’d agree that’s a pretty serious failure on the part of Catholics and the Church, though if one could somehow conduct a survey on other routine sins that “don’t hurt anyone much” according to a mainstream cultural understanding, and which it can be highly difficult or inconvenient to avoid (lying, unethical business dealings, gluttony, greed, sloth, selfishness, various other sexual sins than contraception, etc.) you’d find a similar level of ignoring Church moral teaching.

    It’s not exactly a news flash that most people sin — not is that generally considered a proof that things aren’t sins or that it’s unreasonable of the Church to call them such.

    • brettsalkeld permalink*
      April 15, 2011 7:31 am

      I think Darwin’s methodological points carry some weight. Which got me thinking: if, according to the study, married “practicing” Catholic women use NFP at a rate of 3% (compared to 1% of the wider culture), and if that number is actually a bit higher because of the “pregnant, post-partum or trying to get pregnant crowd” what would our conversation look like if the Guttmacher study had chosen to frame this as “Catholic women 500% more likely to use NFP than non-Catholic women.”

      Lies, damn lies, and all that.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
        April 15, 2011 5:16 pm

        Well, at the end, the numbers at the bottom are that only a very small percentage of Catholic women use NFP. That is the key point and trying to frame it otherwise only serves to obscure what for my purposes is the central fact being reported.

  4. April 14, 2011 11:58 pm

    “I do not want to quibble about survey methodology, since even if we grant that these numbers are wrong by an order of magnitude (and there is no evidence that they are), they would still show that the vast majority of Catholic women use various means of artificial birth control.”

    Do they? What about all the married couples who simply, very quickly, seem to stop having sex altogether, or at least with any regularity, once a couple kids come along? Sexless marriage is a well-known (and joked about) phenomenon, especially with the exhaustion of a few kids. And one which the Church wouldn’t necessarily consider “bad” given stuff like St Theresa’s comments about marriage being also a path to eventual celibacy, etc.

    “What to make of these results, doctrinally and pastorally? They represent a singular failure of reception of Catholic moral teaching, one which is remarkable for the way in which it cuts across the metric of religious observance.”

    Also, all though many of these women probably do reject Church teaching…merely using birth control doesn’t prove that they reject the TEACHING in theory anymore than masturbation proves someone rejects that teaching. Maybe these women believe it but just accept it as a sin in their lives, vaguely compartmentalize the thought and refuse to think about it, but will confess it once they reach menopause or something like that, etc. Merely sinning does not prove that you reject the idea that it’s a sin.

  5. doug permalink
    April 15, 2011 12:41 am

    It is accounted for by three things.

    Failure to teach.

    Failure to teach effectively.

    Failure to accept teaching.

    It wasn’t until the arrival of the internet that I was able to actually find out what Catholic teaching was. No one I knew had any idea. The priest teaching marriage prep taught that premarital sex was okay when my wife and I got married. A friend was told by a priest that condom use was okay. My mother was told the same thing by a different priest in a different part of the country. Now, when authentic Catholic teaching on the subject is actually taught, people have difficulty accepting Catholic teaching on contraception, and difficulty understanding it. The Church in the U.S. tried so hard to be accepted by the public that it watered down dogma and failed to teach morals. What a huge mistake, and one that is hard to overcome. After teaching a generation of parents that contraception was okay, with parents passing that on to their children, suddenly the American Church needs to change gears and do what it should have been doing all along. It’s no wonder there is difficulty.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
      April 15, 2011 6:54 pm

      But this is not a recent problem, nor is it solely an American problem. For the historical setting, see my comment below. And currently, contraception appears to be widespread among Catholics in Europe.

  6. April 15, 2011 6:01 am

    Newman once said that in order for a doctrine to be accepted, one must wait for the echo of the Universal Church. Well, the Universal Church is saying something quite different from what the hierarchy is saying. (And the reason that young, church-going couples in their 20’s might have lower rates of artificial contraception use is that there are so few of them to begin with.) And indeed, look at least at the archdiocesan paper here and they always have NFP classes advertised. It’s not like people aren’t exposed to it, they just don’t want to hear it, and pastors don’t want to have to ram it down their throat.

    The hierarchy is going to lose this one by sheer attrition, just as they lost on many other fronts. I am sure there were plenty of right-wing Catholics on the 17th century blogosphere who railed against usury, and there was even a pretty strong encyclical against it. Were people saying: “people are going to Hell because they are charging interest on loans!” That’s funny, I don’t hear any nosy bishops or right-wing bloggers today complaining about the 29.9% APR on one of my credit cards being “intrinsically evil”. How many people died in slavery before people started to take seriously the new found magisterial epiphany that slavery was “intrinsically evil”? How many people were tortured by the priests before the priests finally figured out that torture was also “intrinsically evil”? Give me a break, people. In one hundred years, people are going to be wondering what the big deal was, just as people read the Syllabus of Errors now like it was written in ancient Etruscan.

    So I would answer a negative to this post’s final question because what people do in their marriage bed is none of the Church’s business, especially if people are being responsible about the progeny that God deigns to give them.

    • April 15, 2011 7:06 am

      I think you are confusing practice with reception of a teaching. The consistent fact of fornication, or of adultery, or of theft, etc., by Catholics does not imply that Catholics have not “received the teaching” on the immorality of fornication, or deny the exclusivity of marriage, or consider theft morally justifiable, etc. The mere fact that Catholics use contraception, then, does not ipso facto imply that they reject the Church’s teaching on the matter; it may very well mean that they simply choose not to live by it. We have a category for that; it’s called sin.

      Also, Newman did not assert that a teaching must be approved by the majority of the laity, nor even of the clergy, to be considered the accepted teaching of the Church. Indeed, he knew the history of Arianism too well to make a claim like that! So, it is distracting and inaccurate to suggest on the basis of Newman’s writings that the widespread use of contraception by married Catholic couples means a rejection of the Church’s teaching as such, even if it means the rejection of applying it one’s life in fact.

      I must admit to be puzzled by your examples and why they demonstrate the “hierarchy” as “losing”. After all, historically it was the hierarchy which had been asserting for centuries against the widespread view of many of the faithful that chattel slavery was a moral evil. The eventual elimination of the slave trade and legal slavery as such (although not de facto slavery, which tragically continues) would argue for the success of the hierarchy, not its failure. The notion of the hierarchy as always “behind” and the faithful in general as having a superior collective insight simply does not bear out in the actual history of the Church. There is thus no good reason to presume, as you do, that “[i]n one hundred years, people are going to be wondering what the big deal was.”

      • April 15, 2011 10:26 am

        Dominic
        Theft and adultery are crystal clear forbidden by the 7th and 6th commandments by God directly as is fornication by Paul writing inspired by God in the NT. Only if one accepts Augustine’s view of Onan is contraception in the Bible at all. The new translation of the passage though has Onan doing coitus interruptus not once as in some old translations but “whenever” he went in to Tamar. So God did not kill him for the one act as God killed Uzzah for the once toughing of the ark. God killed Onan because Onan’s intent was never to have any children and Christ was come through the house of Judah which at that time was Er, Onan, Shelah and Judah. For Tamar to move to the next man in line required that each man who willed no children at all must be killed or Tamar was stuck with the son who wanted not even one child. Augustine may have been too busy with his own contraceptive past to have seen beyond the coitus interruptus. But for most Catholics, they do not see any interest in Christ in this issue.
        On the Popes and slavery, read Noonan…..the Catholic universities from Aquinas’ time til 1960 ( Iorio’ “Theologia Moralis” 1960) had 4 exceptions that justified slavery and none of the Popes explicitly forbade those exceptions which is why the Jesuits had slaves into the 19th century and why Bishop England defended it in his Diocesan paper in the 19th century. Noonan’s ” The Church That Can and Cannot Change” gives much detail on the stereo no/ yes Church involvement with slavery.

    • The bald Mexican permalink
      April 15, 2011 10:17 am

      I think that last comment assumes that the Church’s position on artificial contraception is on par with adultery, murder, theft, or the Trinity. Judging from even the rather minimal moral standards of our own society, most people would not concede that cheating on your wife is okay, nor do people condone masturbating in public, or stealing your wallet, and so on. (Hey, in one hundred years, who knows?) The best way to apply the issue of conscience is if you would do something in front of your mother. Would you pop the Pill in front of your own mother if you are married and have kids already? Most people would. For now, at least, no one has the guilt when faced with the Pill, and perhaps one should toast to people’s conscience concerning that (to quote another Newmanism). It’s not like even many church-going Catholics would be ashamed of taking the Pill or having their tubes tied after having two to three kids. They wouldn’t even blush to tell you they did so.

      And regularly, no one should care. But to bring this up as if the architectonic position of the Church is at stake, as if popping the Pill is an attack on the human person and a negation of the Trinity (as some of the mystical interpretations of the theology of the body make it out to be), well, what can I say: if the Church makes a bigger deal of this than it is, then it is the Church’s fault if people don’t listen to it on this issue.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
      April 15, 2011 5:44 pm


      So I would answer a negative to this post’s final question because what people do in their marriage bed is none of the Church’s business, especially if people are being responsible about the progeny that God deigns to give them.

      I am afraid I do not see how this justifies your answer that there are not other areas where we see a similar phenomenon, that rejection of Church teaching is independent of mass attendance.

  7. brettsalkeld permalink*
    April 15, 2011 7:37 am

    I had not thought of the failure to follow Church teaching on NFP along the lines of failure to follow Church teaching on porn and masturbation (or whatever) before. I think this is a key point. We know that the number of Christian men (and women!) that use porn is staggering, but we don’t suggest that 95% (or whatever) of Christian men disagree with the Church about porn and masturbation. Now, I think that using ABC will more often be accompanied by actual dissent than use of porn for the simple fact that using ABC requires collaboration with another sinner. Such activities typically require more internal justification than an addictive solo habit. But I think the general point holds.

    • April 15, 2011 9:47 am

      Brett
      I don’t see the papal involvement with this issue. How does a Pope find time to write two books on the gospel Christ while having allegedly 96% of his married laity in mortal sin? The papal non involvement is part of the stats. If 96% of Catholics were robbing banks, the Pope would be calling Bishops to Rome quarterly until it was solved one way or the other. On this issue, Popes will issue inclusion of it in documents but then seem quite unperturbed outside the documents. In short, Popes outside the document level do not seem worried about having a theoretical high damnation rate on this issue…lol. It’s as though they are not sure. If you had a Pope that was both sure about the papal position and concerned with souls, I would think he would get on TV to debate the issue against all advocates for the opposite stance…as Benedict early in his papacy did with a Euro secularist on general issues. TV is the new mainstreet bulletin board wherein a Pope can reach millions in one hour. Presidents and CEO’s all use that bulletin board now. It is theatrical that our Popes don’t. They maintain the inaccessibility of monarchs as to debate but the original Peter did not….he entered the streets after Pentecost….the streets where one can be contradicted. The laity see the de facto inactivity of the Popes on this issue outside the document context. The papal behaviour is part of the stats. You would need a Pope who wants to talk about this beyond the document level and in a context wherein he is not safe from debate. If you don’t get him in your lifetime, the stats will remain as they are.

      • brettsalkeld permalink*
        April 15, 2011 11:47 am

        A few things:
        1. I’m not sure why this is directed at me specifically.
        2. I don’t think that concern about an issue automatically entails public engagement as you envisage it. Benedict himself has said that the reason he doesn’t focus on abortion on his foreign visits is because if people hear nothing but “no!” from the Church, they’ll stop listening entirely. They must hear what we stand for if they are to understand what we stand against.
        3. Some very high percentage of us are masturbating and using porn. Must the Pope speak out on this every day until it stops? Will such speaking out have the desired effect?

  8. April 15, 2011 9:08 am

    I think some people are in denial. It has always been perfectly easy (even before the Internet) to know what the teachings of the Catholic Church were. There were Catholic books and periodicals. Anyone who wanted to could read Humanae Vitae itself.

    Catholics know what the teachings of the Church are, and yet even faithful Catholics do not accept the teachings of the Church on contraception. If I am correct, many priests do not accept the teachings of the Church on these matters, either. It is not that people don’t know, or are poorly catechized. They simply find the teachings unconvincing. I am not sure it is so much the result that the Church hasn’t made the case clearly. I think it is because no matter how clearly the case is made, people don’t believe it.

    Of course everyone is a sinner, but what I don’t think we know is whether the most faithful Catholics consider their use of contraception a sin and confess it. I am guessing here, but I have a very strong feeling the answer is that if Catholics who use contraception go to confession and bring it up with a priest, they are not confessing their use of contraception as a sin but rather bringing it up to get reassurance from their confessor that what they are doing is not sinful.

    I think what will eventually happen is that the official pronouncements of the Church will move in the direction of what the faithful are doing, and the use of NFP instead of contraception will a discipline for those who want to conform to a higher standard, and contraception will be looked upon as not sinful per se.

    Of course most of this is pure speculation on my part.

    • April 15, 2011 11:23 am

      I am guessing here, but I have a very strong feeling the answer is that if Catholics who use contraception go to confession and bring it up with a priest, they are not confessing their use of contraception as a sin but rather bringing it up to get reassurance from their confessor that what they are doing is not sinful.

      As a helpful hint from a confessor, when someone confesses something to a priest, he knows it to be sinful, or at least strongly suspects it to be so. He may be looking to be let off the hook, of course. However, people who have not accepted the teaching, i.e. do not find it convincing, will not confess it. It is those with a guilty conscience who, at one and the same time, don’t want to stop but want to be relieved of their guilt, who follow the kind of scenario you propose. Ironically, this suggests that people by and large have accepted the teaching (i.e. they do not have a principled reason to reject it as such, or the Church’s authority to teach on moral matters) but have chosen not to live by it.

      • April 15, 2011 1:19 pm

        It is my understanding (based on very little information, admittedly), that some priests give permission to use contraception (although I assume you believe they do not have the authority to) and that there is a certain amount of “priest shopping” in the Catholic Church among those who want to use contraception, go to confession, and not consider themselves guilty of (mortal?) sin.

        As somewhat of a side issue, how many Catholics go to confession at all? And also, do Catholics who attend Mass monthly (say) instead of weekly confess to missing Mass?

  9. April 15, 2011 11:17 am

    The report finds that only 2% of Catholic women use natural family planning, and that this number does not vary significantly when frequency of mass attendance is taken into account.

    The problem with the survey is that it lumps women who attend mass once a month and women who attend mass weekly and on holy days of obligation as “people who frequently attend mass.” As I’m sure you all know, there is a world of difference between going once or twice a month and going every Sunday. The research doesn’t address the contraception (or infanticide) practices specific to women who go to mass every week and on the requisite holy days.

    I’m sure that a great deal of those women use illicit methods of birth control, too. But I’m willing to bet that it’s a significantly lower percentage of them.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
      April 15, 2011 5:43 pm

      I do not have the data in front of me (I wish I did) but I can infer a bit based on some experience. There is an institute at my school for the study of religion in public life, and we have some top notch sociologists doing survey work. I am on the board of advisors and so get first hand accounts of their work. The most common metric of commitment to a religious identity (in this case Catholic) is mass attendance, which is split into categories along the lines of “weekly” “one or more times a month” etc. So the data is there. The authors of this survey are making a pretty categorical assertion about the underlying data: this number does not vary significantly with respect to this metric. To say this does not mean that they are the same: rather, they are asserting that the differences have no statistical meaning based on their sample size and their agreed definition of “significant.” (A statistical term which attempts to quantify our intuitive definition.) So we could infer that they are lying, or we could accept this as a statement of fact. I am inclined to be charitable and accept it.

  10. ben permalink
    April 15, 2011 11:49 am

    I think that one of the difficulties here is that the larger culture understands as a vice what the church understands as a virtue. I don’t think that very many leaders in the church understand the conflict that people have in their lives over this issue. I think that in a significant number of cases people who use contractetion aren’t doing so out of a sense of moral failure or sin at all. I don’t believe they are motivated by selfishness or greed. In fact, I think that they are trying to do what is right and trying to be “good people”. The larger culture tells them that contraception users are responsible and NFP users, especially those with large families, are irresponsible. I think a large number of people not only believe that the church is wrong to condemn contraception but believe that the church is actually causing harm in doing so.

    More than any other teaching in the modern church, it is the teaching on contraception, that is most at odds with modern life. Those who accept it are viewed by the majority culture as being morally inferior to those who don’t. This tension even affects those in the church who are the obstensible promoters of right teaching. This is why most people understand that NFP is “catholic birth control”: because there is a desire among those who really want to be “good people” to come as close to the culturally accepted norm as possible. This tension is also the reason that the concept of the “large catholic family” has shrunk to the nearly socially acceptable size of 4 children in the past 20 years, because it allows people to BOTH think they are good catholics AND good people. But most catholics will use contracetion anyway beause they believe that when the two are in conflict, it is more important to be a good person than a good catholic. This is why they speak about conscience so much.

    This is largely a failure of teaching. It will not change until the leaders of the church are willing to call contraceptors to the carpet, people need to feel like being a bad catholic means that you are a bad person, or they will continue to see the larger society as their moral teacher instead of the church.

  11. Michael J. Barberi permalink
    April 15, 2011 12:10 pm

    Mr. Nickol provides a good response to Dominic Holz’s comments.

    If you studied contraception inclusive of surveys, it is clear that about 35%-45% of priests do not consider contraception morally illicit. They don’t believe Humanae Vitae (HV) is completely right. Many bishops also do not support HV through “silent dissent”.

    Surveys and non-reception of a Church teaching prove nothing theologically. When a Church teaching is not received it means that the Church does not call forth the power to change behavior they believe is intrinsically evil. Catholics who practice masturbation or pre-martial sex believe it is a sin; they just ignore it and commit the sin. To assert that Catholics who practice contraception believe this teaching to be the moral truth but commit the so-called sin anyway is absurd. Those who assert such a claim are either not being truthful or are naive.

    As for culpability, consider this contradictory practice. A habitual sinner (e.g, those who practice contraception) are given absolution through the the principle of graduation. In other words, the sinner is expected to gradually or eventually change his or her behavior by frequent prayer and Eucharistic Communion. Of course, for those who practice contraception and receive Eucharistic Communion do not confess this as a sin; or if they do, do they intend to stop the practice. However, other habitual sinners (e.g., those who are divorced and remarried and are having sexual relations) are refused absolution and Eucharistic Communion. The principle of graduation does not apply to them. Contradictory? Of course it is. The ISSUE: If the Church had the courage to teach HV from the pulpit, especially about the necessity of confessing this sin before receiving Eucharistic Communion, most of the people who stand in line each week to receive this sacrament would be seated.

  12. April 15, 2011 12:55 pm

    “people need to feel like being a bad catholic means that you are a bad person, or they will continue to see the larger society as their moral teacher instead of the church.”

    Yup.

  13. Darwin permalink
    April 15, 2011 2:57 pm

    Catholics who practice masturbation or pre-martial sex believe it is a sin; they just ignore it and commit the sin. To assert that Catholics who practice contraception believe this teaching to be the moral truth but commit the so-called sin anyway is absurd. Those who assert such a claim are either not being truthful or are naive.

    This reminds me of a mildly humorous anecdote from the first year that my wife and I were helping out with RCIA. This was some years ago in California, and the older fellow who had run the program for decades did not agree with Church teaching on birth control, but he gave it a brief mention at the point in the USCCB Catechism For Adults which mentioned the topic.

    “So that’s what the Church says,” he wrapped up. “But of course, you need to follow your conscience. Does anyone have any questions?”

    One woman raised her hand, “Does that mean that my boyfriend and I will have to stop using birth control when we become Catholic?”

    Yes, there are people who understand and agree with Church teaching on fornication, porn, masturbation, etc. and yet commit those sins anyway, while recognizing themselves to be in sin. But frankly, I think that there too a lot of people consider their particular situations to be exceptional, or their particular failings to be “not all that serious” or “probably not really a sin.”

    We live in the age when everyone is “basically a good person” (well, except for those other people) and I think a lot of people basically reason backwards into concluding from that that whatever it is that they in particular are doing is probably not actually wrong.

  14. April 15, 2011 3:09 pm

    Regarding using NFP to get pregnant . . .

    When I was very thin and wanted to gain weight—and those days are long gone!—a doctor once gave me a packet of weight-loss information and said, “Here, do the opposite of everything it says.”

  15. David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
    April 15, 2011 6:52 pm

    I am not aware of any recent studies on contraception and the confessional, but historically this question has been examined. Noonan in his book on contraception discusses the instructions given to French priests to NOT bring up contraception in the confessional. The practice was common, but was clearly not being brought up by the married couples in confession. The priests were being told to not go on fishing expeditions. A more recent book (in Italian, Sandro Magister reviewed it here) documents a similar phenomenon here. So the very widespread practice was not, as Ben suggested above, to make people feel like “bad Catholics” but to remain silent on the question.

    With regards to the distinction between non-reception and sinful behavior that Fr. Dominic made: I think that is a valid and useful distinction in the abstract, but, for the reasons other commentators have given above, not relevant in this case. People are not ashamed about their use of contraception in the sense that they think they are morally in the wrong. They will talk about it, discretely; my sense is that they do not want to be seen as “bad Catholics” for dissenting, but that they feel justified in their actions. This is an issue that they have prayed and reflected on in many cases and they believe that they are acting with fully informed consciences. (There are probably others who do not, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, as it were.) So going back to a question posed above: yes, the non-reception of Catholic teaching on contraception does appear to fall into a different theological category than the sins of sloth and despair.

    I found some data to confirm this in a survey commissioned by the Tablet in London in 2008. (You can read their published summary here.) Of those surveyed, 70% thought that the teaching of the Church on contraception was wrong (16%) or should be revisited (54%). (Going back to my original question, their data does not appear to have been correlated with mass attendance.)

    • April 16, 2011 12:09 pm

      This is an issue that they have prayed and reflected on in many cases and they believe that they are acting with fully informed consciences.

      This claim is at the heart of much of this discussion and is also terribly hard at determining whether or not it is true. We can fight a war of anecdotes and “what seems to us to be the case” but I am less than confident that the result will be reliably true. I will suggest, however, that the kind of person adverted to here is in the minority among Catholics, even as the number of Catholics troubled in conscience by using contraception is probably a minority. Most Catholics, I fear, have already been making use of artificial contraception well before marriage, and most, again I fear, have simply embraced the larger patterns and praxis/values of American/Canadian/European society at large. They are not silly, however, and they certainly know what the Church teaches, so minimally they have chosen to compartmentalize and not expose this part of their life to moral scrutiny. (Perhaps with the collusion of the priest in the confessional, perhaps not. By its nature, information about what priests say in the confessional cannot be had directly, and there is no way of testing whether anecdotal reports of penitents (a) accurately reflects what the priest said or (b) is representative even if accurate.)

      So, while I sadly must admit that a large number of Catholics are simply morally untroubled by their contracepting (although Romans 1 suggests that this is the very pattern of sin), I think that those who speak about the “struggles” and “informed consciences” of such Catholics also ought to reconsider their claim. To think that most of these couples has really informed their consciences in the sense meant in moral theology is quite far from evident. So, what we have is people untroubled about doing what they know the Church teaches to be grave moral matter but whose practice in this regard is generally traceable to already having embraced contraceptive patterns outside of marriage along the patterns of society at large. To me, this is not about the reception or not of a teaching in the theologically significant sense.

    • Darwin permalink
      April 16, 2011 9:08 pm

      If you want to use the Tablet survey as evidence of the non-reception of the Church’s teaching on contraception, we might as well throw out all Church teaching on sexual morality, since according to the same survey a majority don’t think that sex before marriage should be discouraged and three quarters think that divorce and remarriage should be accepted.

  16. April 15, 2011 8:35 pm

    Re: Mass attendance. I am reminded of an anecdote of a friend who was studying theology in Rome. When he struck up some conversation with a random guy one day, he casually asked him where he went to Mass. “Mass?!,” the man replied, “I said I was Catholic, not a fanatic”. Which sort of betrays the fact that in many “traditional” Catholic societies, men were not expected to go to Mass; that was a woman’s thing to do. He might go to Mass for weddings, funerals, major feasts, and his name day, but that’s it. And most priests didn’t expect them to go more than that. It is only our particular breed of American Catholicism, Irish devotional revolution piety mixed with Puritanism and a dash of unwaivering faith in our institutions, that expects all Catholics to go to Mass every Sunday lest they be considered “Catholics in name only”.

    In that sense, the level of dissent was different because the level of assent for the laity was different as well. The laity had its own sense of religiosity through a combination of lack of education and clerical neglect. I am reminded of an anecdote from early modern Italy when a cleric asked a woman how many Virgins there were, and she was shocked that he said there was only one. For it was common sense that there were many Virgins: a Virgin of the Assumption, the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin of Sorrows, etc. We may snicker at such responses now, but for them that is what made their religiosity functional. To frame religion, then, as though people are religious under vows and have to obey their superiors seems to be a very Jesuitical approach. That sort of level of self interrogation was never common, and the clericalization of the laity is a very recent phenomenon. Maybe that has to change for the institutional Church to continue, but it is by no means normal, nor has it been fully tried, as this issue seems to indicate.

  17. Michael J. Barberi permalink
    April 15, 2011 10:30 pm

    In 2007, Dean Hoge reported in a research article that the youngest generation (ages 18-25) and the Post Vatican II generation (born 1961-1979) hold to greater individual authority in religious and moral decisions than older Catholics. They tend to distinguish faith in God from obeying the rules of the institutional Catholic Church. They show little signs of returning to earlier levels of religious orthodoxy and practice demonstrated by the pre-Vatican II generation.

    Percent of Catholics who say it is always morally wrong:

    Post-Vatican II Vatican II (40-62) Pre-Vatican II
    To engage in homosexual acts 37 40 69
    To terminate pregnancy by ab ortion 37 34 55
    To engage in pre-marital sex 22 25 64
    To use condoms or birth control pills 10 8 25

  18. April 18, 2011 12:46 am

    The most disheartening thing about all of this is that no one is considering the parts of the world where NFP is not even available -

  19. April 18, 2011 1:08 am

    sigh

  20. boinquo permalink
    April 19, 2011 3:52 pm

    I wish I knew a few more things about the data in this study. Keep in mind that the GI is funded by PP, two institutions who are probably very happy with these results.

    1) Sample recruitment: If these women were recruited outside of church, responses would probably be different from women who answered surveys directly from the GI, which sets a precedent for the kind of women who would choose to participate in this study. My guess is that the reason why this sample failed to report significant differences in NFP use with women who went to Mass 1-2x vs every week was because these women….
    2) …were probably answering surveys in conjunction to Planned Parenthood access or something similar? Women who are already seeking services from Planned Parenthood (contraceptive, abortive, or gyno checkups), are probably much much more likely to use AC, and reject NFP. While Planned Parenthood has recently posted NFP as an effective form of family planning on their website (I know, huh!), it fails to provide services to teach/counsel women to practice it.
    3) How was this study framed? Usually, to prevent response bias, surveys try to be coy in their titles, so this this one wasn’t probably “OMG A SURVEY FOR GIRLS WHO LOVE JESUS” but was probably “Safe Sex Practices and Spirituality” or something like that. I think this would draw a particular sample of women to even answer the survey.
    4) Why couldn’t they just freaking ask women why they used AC and not NFP? They may have but perhaps refused to report the data to prove their point.

    If the data did not favor AC use (and subsequently, PP access), would the GI even be publishing this study?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
      April 19, 2011 4:31 pm

      You are making some serious accusations of poor survey design here. This is from the methodology section of the GI report:

      This report was based on data from the 2006–2008 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG). Designed and administered by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), the NSFG produces national estimates of factors affecting pregnancy, including sexual activity and contra- ceptive use. Data were gathered using in-person inter- views with 7,356 women aged 15–44 between June 2006 and December 2008. All data used for this analysis were weighted, and the findings are nationally representative.

      In other words, the GI did not gather the data, and the government agency gathering the data was concerned about questions of sample bias and took efforts to correct for it.

      • boinquo permalink
        April 19, 2011 4:43 pm

        Fair enough–!

  21. Michael J. Barberi permalink
    April 19, 2011 4:46 pm

    Dean Hoge is a theologian from the Catholic University of America. His survey results are consistent with other surveys.

    The disturbing trend is the opinions of the youngest Catholics. If you can discern the poorly displayed results on my previous blog comment, both the Vatican II and Post Vatican II generation have a similar opinion.

    When it comes to sexual ethics, most Catholics today including young adults overwhelming do not believe contraception is intrinsically evil or that NFP is the only licit way to limit children in marriage. While sexual anthropology is important it is not sufficient for an ethics of procreation. However, the person and his or her relationships are not given any adequate weight in an act-sin centered sexual anthropology that the Church has had since Augustine to this very day.

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