Timely New Report on Catholic Women and Contraception

After a good long tirade around the kitchen last night during Caroline Kennedy’s “as a Catholic woman” speech, I tried to think of what will come next in the following weeks and months. There’s a report I’ve been promoting this week, and the timing is undoubtedly providential.

One thing I’ve noticed about controversy: It’s a process by which things can change. People are listening now, it’s our turn to take the stage.

Mary Rice Hasson, J.D., a woman I am proud to call a friend, is a Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington D.C. She is also the director of the Women, Faith, and Culture project together with Michele M. Hill who has been active in apostolates within the Archdiocese of Baltimore. These ladies have issued a preliminary report, What Catholic Women Think About Faith, Conscience, and Contraception, in which 824 Church-going Catholic women ages 18-54 were surveyed. (*Be sure to note how that is defined in the report.)

While the data indicates that most Catholic women do not fully support the Church’s teachings on contraception, the results also do not show the sweeping rejection of Church teaching the media portrays either. The picture is more nuanced. From the website, Women, Faith and Culture: Exploring What Catholic Women Think:

Catholic Women and Faith
90% say faith is important to daily life
72% rely on homilies to learn the faith
28% have gone to Confession within the year

Catholic Women and Contraception
33% think the Church says “yes” to contraception
13% say “yes” to Church teaching
37% say “no” to Church teaching
44% say “no, but maybe …” to Church teaching

The report shows that about one-third of Church-going Catholic women incorrectly believe that couples have the right to decide for themselves the moral acceptability of contraception – regardless of Church teaching. When Church teaching was explained, 44% were receptive to learning more. These results suggest the problem is in part catechetical, and that women want more instruction.

Church-going Catholic women fall into three groups, the researchers found: 1) “the faithful” who say “yes” to Church teaching, 2) “the dissenters” who say “no” to it, and 3) the “soft middle” who are reluctant, but receptive to more information.

The hope for this project is that good conversations can begin about how to reach the women who identify as Catholic but reject Church teaching on contraception, and yet, still in their heart want to do the right thing. Mary and Michele also hope that the data will inspire our priests to have confidence to preach the truth on this issue.

While 72% of women said that the homilies in Mass are their primary source for learning about Church teaching, more than eight in ten said they believe they can be “good Catholics” even if they “do not accept some of the Catholic Church’s teachings on sex, family planning, birth control, and reproduction.” They seem to be listening, but not accepting.

One last note: The honesty of this report is to be applauded. This is what scientific investigation is supposed be, a genuine search for truth to understand reality and seek solutions. Too often reports such as these are thrown at the public with broad appeals to authority and muddled analysis, so much so that it seems the study was conducted more to support a predetermined, politically expedient conclusion (i.e. breast-cancer and abortion, mental health and abortion, climate change, homosexual lifestyles, et caetera) than to actually investigate the truth. But how do you find real solutions if you don’t know the actual problem?

Although the conclusions in this report are rattling, they lay at our feet a description of a very real problem. Please read and share.

Full report here: What Catholic Women Think About Faith, Conscience, and Contraception

Website here: Women, Faith and Culture: Exploring What Catholic Women Think

27 Responses to Timely New Report on Catholic Women and Contraception

  • It is consoling to know women are “receptive” to learning Church teachings. There is no doubt, if we obtain our catechesis from Sunday sermons we are left wanting. Personally only recall two homilies touching on the topic in the past ten years. Aside from the spiritual implications the lack of information given women regarding the physical effects is equally disturbing. I think of the California smelt controversy and ask myself where the outrage is regarding chemical contraception.

    Oral Contraceptives have been classified by the World Health Organization as Class 1 Carcinogens. This is the same class as asbestos after dozens of studies found they are linked to breast and cervical cancer. Frequently oral contraceptives contain high doses of ethinyloestradiol linked to prostate cancer and the sexual reprogramming in wild fish.

    The effects on the soul, body, and environment are recognized and documented–why the silence?

  • The thing that frustrates me about the “soft middle” is the lack of intellectual curiousity. I grew up knowing the Catholic Church’s position on birth control was the reason the world suffered from overpopulation and economic ruin. (I grew up in a basically agnostic household with a few trappings of the Episcopal Church here and there at Christmas time.)

    And when it looked like joining the Church was a real possibility, the first thing I did was start looking for the reasons why the Church was so down on what was so obviously a great advance for mankind. While I didn’t have to look too hard (the proper junk mail advertising Scott Hahn’s cassette tape on the series magically appeared in my mail box), that was before Google. I had to pay for the tapes and wait snail mail.

    Yes, I know people are living very busy, very hectic lives, and I don’t run Google searches on every little thing either myself. On the other hand, the bishops don’t declare a Fortnight of Prayer for XYZ cause very often or get excited about things in quite the same way as they have with HHS mandate. I would think the “soft middle” might doing some of their own research on the issue.

    Am I being too harsh here?

  • I am a Catholic woman 63 years old. I was catechized in the 50’s and I am still waiting for the church to address the role of husbands and men in the contraception/abortion problem. I was threatened by abandonment after the birth of my daughter, at age 23, by my husband. He wanted to be sterilized and I felt I had no choice in the matter. Nice little, complacent wife, obedient to my spouse. What about men who beg their wives to have sex knowing that they will become pregnant, and why will the church NOT catechize the men who do this. How about the abusive spouse? The ones who force their wives. Why is it always the woman who is responsible for the contraception, Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery, when she could have been killed by men, it is only recently that the church claims that the man who she was with was there among the abusers.

  • Rita, DJ, and Silvia,

    First, DJ, no you are not being too harsh.

    This is a good place to talk it out and share experiences and ideas. The women surveyed told us what they think, so what can we do?

    I think it is very important to get this report into the hands of priests. I can image it’s hard to talk about reproductive issues from the pulpit, but if they knew how much people wanted them to address those issues, maybe they’d be more confident to do so.

    Thank you for your responses!

  • Sylvia: I hear you! That is another area I think the bishops could do a bit better on. I remember reading an article, I think it was in a Christian magazine, not specifically Catholic, and the fellow writing it was looking back on his life (the author was in his 60’s maybe?) and he mentioned about hanging out with the “loose women” not the ones he would choose for a spouse. Wow. Hyprocracy in action. On a somewhat more encouraging note, when I subscribed to a “traditionist Catholic newspaper” this one noted “Trad” had extremely harsh words for the type of man you describe. Wish I had kept the article. He pulled no punches.

  • I have a bit of a different perspective. I was a badly catechized Catholic when I married. My wife was Protestant. In our marriage prep class, the priest basically said it was okay to fornicate prior to marriage. My mother had been told by a priest that she SHOULD use artificial birth control after the eighth child. A friend told me he had been told by a priest it was okay to contracept.

    Then came the internet, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Now I could find resources that had never been revealed to me by anyone responsible for my catechesis as a youth, or by priests who should have known better in my young adulthood. By this time, my wife and I had four children, all while using artificial birth control that failed to work. I became convinced it was wrong after reading Humanae Vitae. Then my wife converted. She became convinced of the truth of Catholic teaching in this manner. Now we have eight children, and are a bit mournful of the fact that we likely won’t have any more.

    I blame poor catechesis, which contributed to my falling away from the Church as well as failing to follow Church teachings. I can tell you from my own experience that what the study labels as a “faithful Catholics” are not. It may also not be their fault that they are not. If you are faithful, you go to Mass every Sunday (unless you have a grave reason), and follow Church teaching. If you’re not faithful, you lapse on either or both of those. I was not a faithful Catholic when I was younger, although I was convinced that I was, and others were convinced that I was. The study is flawed in its methodology in that it uses self-description rather than objective measures for who is a faithful Catholic. If you include people who both attend Mass every Sunday (unless they have a grave reason for missing it), and people who accept Church teaching, you will have far different results.

    The Church needs to focus on catechesis. Effective, passionate, strong catechesis. The world is giving a message that is opposed to Church teaching, and we need to be louder and more persistent than the world if we want to change things.

  • I heartily second everything A.S. said above. I went through 12 years of Catholic schooling – 8 in grammar school and then a Jesuit High School. Not once during that time do I ever recall being taught about the Church’s teachings on contraception, and if it was mentioned it was probably questioned. Rarely is it ever discussed during homilies, though they are more willing to tackle the topic at my current parish than anywhere else I’ve been.

    The statistics sadden me, but that lumpy middle is just begging for some good catechism.

  • “I think of the California smelt controversy and ask myself where the outrage is regarding chemical contraception.”

    There are some people who embrace and even teach natural family planning or “fertility awareness”, NOT for religious or moral reasons, but for the very reason that it is natural and does not require the use of artificial hormones, chemicals or devices to “fix” a bodily function that is not “broken.” I am surprised there are not more of them, but, I suppose it’s kind of nice to know they exist at all. It seems to me that if the ecology/back to nature crowd really practiced what they preached, they would be very receptive to the concept of NFP.

    “I am still waiting for the church to address the role of husbands and men in the contraception/abortion problem.”

    In my experience, when the issues of contraception and abortion are addressed from the pulpit (it doesn’t happen very often, but I have to say that of late, it IS happening with some regularity) neither men nor women are singled out; it is aimed at everyone. The issue of what to do when spouses adamantly disagree about the issue — one spouse desires to follow Church teaching and the other refuses, leaving what appears to be an intractable choice of either cooperating in evil or breaking up the marriage — also needs to be addressed, but more likely than not it is usually done privately in confession or spiritual direction and not from the pulpit.

  • Elaine Krewer: “I am still waiting for the church to address the role of husbands and men in the contraception/abortion problem.”

    Husbands do not use contraception, men do. Maybe, I ought to call then males or such. When a man services his lust, enlarges his sex addiction and uses another person, which is what contraception is, it is not so much joy, it is misery incorporated. If someone does not love you enough to want more of you, your relationship is not love. “My husband uses contraception, not I”, often heard in the confessional; then it would appear that the male is off the hook with “My wife takes birth control pills, not I.” These two did not become one. Can there be a marriage, if they do not become one?

    Abortion? “My girlfriend has a abortion, not I.” The father’s DNA is thrown into the garbage with his genes and seed and offspring and our posterity, and the court says it is OK, so, the idiot (servicing only his id) says it must be OK.

  • Science has determined, (can’t provide link) that when a woman carries a child, some of the child’s cells enter the woman’s body and reside there. Now, the woman carries the child’s DNA along with the father’s DNA. The two literally become one according to the laws of nature and nature’s God. Subsequent children, too, will have a place in their mother’s body. “Unconditional love”

  • “I think of the California smelt controversy and ask myself where the outrage is regarding chemical contraception.” and the five legged amphibians, and the emasculation of every water drinking Amercan man. The culmination of militant feminism: the eradication of testosterone.

  • Mary,

    I’ve heard that too. I think it’s beautiful, and it means for women who lost children before birth, that they are part of her even still because they existed.

    Also I learned not too long ago that the word “zygote” comes from the Greek word meaning “yoked” as in “joined together.”

    “But from the beginning of the creation, God made them male and female. For this cause, a man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife. And they two shall be in one flesh. Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh.” (Mark 10:6-9)

    I think some women are afraid what it will mean if they accept Church teaching fully, and they are afraid to face their past sins. (Speaking from experience.)

  • Thank you, Stacy, for your admirable work and words. “I think some women are afraid what it will mean if they accept Church teaching fully, and they are afraid to face their past sins. (Speaking from experience.)

    (You speak for me too, Stacy)

  • You can spin this anyway you want, however, only 13% say “YES” to Church teaching. I find that extremely disturbing, what other Church teachings about faith and morals do they reject? Abortion? Women Priests? Homosexual Marriage? I would’ve also asked those questions and the most important question, do you believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist-Body,Blood, Soul and Divinity? I think you would’ve seen some similarity between those who accept Church teaching and those who believe in the Real Presence.
    90% say living there daily faith is important, yet only 28% have been to confession once in a year-what faith are these women talking about? It most certainly isn’t the Catholic faith.
    The Bishops have spent the past 50 years teaching everything BUT what’s important, The Bishops have failed and should hang there collective heads in shame.

  • The large majority of the Vatican Birth Control commission in 1968 said the pill was OK. This commission was appointed by Paul VI and consisted of Cardinals, bishops, theologians and married couples. [it included JPII who stayed in Poland].
    Humanae Vitae was issued instead of the vast majority advise.
    Homilies are to be about the Sundays reading. What scripture do you see about birth control?
    http://catholicsforcontraception.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=9:majreport&catid=6:chrchdocs

  • I was one of those catholic women. grew up in a catholic home, went to mass every sunday. never never heard anything growing up on NFP, or the WHY artificial contraception was wrong. at somepoint yes did hear it was ( not from my parents who were more concerned with whether my oldersister would be able to finish college before the babies would start coming when she got married- ) that was the message we got- dont have babies too soon, else you wont be able to work outside the home and pay for that house we had bought right before we got married. We did start out using NFP as newlyweds but did not understand the whole- open to life- thing. we looked at it more as ‘catholic” birthcontrol. birthcontrol that failed- or more actually it was us who cheated the rules and sure enough I was pregnant 4 months after our wedding. well as we had just bought a house that took both our incomes, and mine was the only job with health benefits, i went back to work and on the pill. at our Engaged encounter in 1990 we had maybe 5 min of NFP at most and then were given a letter from the US CATHOLIC bishops stating that one could ‘pray about it, and make up ones concience in the matter of using artificial contraception or not.” and of course we had all the right reasons not to have another child right away. looking back I can see that once you make that excuse, you can justify any reason. neither my husband or I ever took the time to read humane vitae, or anything else on this issue. we thought ourselves ‘faithful catholics”. we went to mass every sunday. our children went to the local catholic school. we even prayed.
    but just as Pope Pius warned, it destroyed things between us.
    selfishness set in. I felt used.
    now too late I do understand why the church in its wisdom teaches what it does.
    i took the time now to read all those things I should have read as an engaged woman.
    instead of shopping for wedding stuff. Now I grieve the children we could have and should have brought into the world.
    i went to confession but still I cannot undo this mistake.
    I think it is an opportunity for the clergy, the bishops to teach church teaching in a way that was not done during the late 60s, 70s,80s. they need to unappologetically preach this from the pulpit. my new parish does. Yet my prior catholic parish I attended for 25 years and NEVER heard the word contraception.
    so many women of those times have told me that this priest or that told them it was ok to use the pill ” in their circumstance”.
    these priests let us down.
    of course we bear the full brunt of responsibility becuase we could have and should have gone to the source itself to learn the truth.

  • I went to CCD classes then a catholic all girls high school. all we learned was a feminist version of watered down catholicsm. definetely never heard about contraception being wrong.
    students in catholic high schools should not graduate without having read the encyclicals on human life, on marriage. understanding NFP. Reading Pope Pius warnings of what will happen- and has happened once the contraception is accepted.

  • Feisco Eddie,

    Yes, it was the opinion of most, but NOT the Holy Father, contraception was permissible. As you point out Paul VI answer was Humanae Vitae. I don’t know your perspective but in this document I see the working of the Holy Spirit as promised in Jn 16:13.

    Birth Control and Scripture. I am certain you know the Christ’s Church does not rely totally on scripture for Her teaching but was given the authority to bind and loose in Mt 18:19. Personally, I have never doubted contraception is addressed beginning in the first book of Genesis. God‘s command was increase and multiply, but that is not the verse that made a lasting impression…that would have been the fate of poor little old Onan further on in Genesis 38. His punishment for what we call coitus interruptus was DEATH. Somehow it struck me perhaps birth control was displeasing to the Lord.

    As an aside.. the people I know who have had practiced NFP are still married 30, 40, 50 years later. Coincidence??

  • Rita: Thank you it bears repeating:

    “God‘s command was increase and multiply, but that is not the verse that made a lasting impression…that would have been the fate of poor little old Onan further on in Genesis 38. His punishment for what we call coitus interruptus was DEATH. Somehow it struck me perhaps birth control was displeasing to the Lord.

    Bringing children, others persons, into the world by doing the will of God, not the will of man, only, and exclusively doing the will of God, gets us to heaven.

  • Frisco Eddie, the Virgin Mary said “Let it be done unto me according to Thy word.”, not “Let it be done unto me according to my word.” Joseph was inclined to “put her away quietly”, but told by an angel that he should not. This is the example we should follow. This is where scripture addresses the proper attitude to marriage and children. If you’re looking for St. Paul to tell the Corinthians not to use a rubber, or Moses bringing down the ten commandments, and engraved in stone is an admonition against a tubal ligation or vasectomy, you’re going to be disappointed because artificial birth control is a new development.

  • If you really want to know what Catholic women think, a good place to start would be with women who have actually walked the walk and talked the talk by practicing NFP for many years. Having grown up in a very orthodox Catholic family situation and then attended what is considered one of the most orthodox Catholic liberal arts colleges in the country, all the people I grew up with and all my college friends have used NFP. We were all determined to live out HV in our lives.

    Twenty years later, many of the marriages are in shambles, and most couples are hanging onto NFP mostly because of fear of burning in hell.

    Look, I’m not saying this to be obnoxious; I’m really serious about this. It’s time to address the elephant in the room: many couples who DO practice NFP are, 20 years later, exhausted, broke, overwhelmed with their large families, and hardly a shining light to the contraceptors surrounding them in the pews.

    The Church needs to find a way to convince people that using contraceptives actually hurts Jesus Christ. I’m a well-read Catholic, I’ve read HV, and I know the Church’s teachings. I also know what stressors have resulted in many marriages (including my own) due to following those teachings. Until the Church can find a way to convince people that taking on those stressors is worth it somehow, it’s going to keep failing to convince the masses that NFP use for 2-3 decades is the way to go for the majority of couples. I know a lot of Catholic couples who have been married for decades; I know very few–if any–of them who would say that NFP use has been a bonding experience. Most of them are holding on only because they figure the stressors of practicing it are better than burning in hell.

    I’m afraid that this is not an argument that is going to persuade the up-and-coming generation of young Catholic women, who likely will have a hard time believing that using a condom with their husband is going to consign to the same eternity of hellfire that will be populated by child molester, serial killers, and rapists.

    When I was young and totally on fire for the Church’s teachings about marriage and NFP, I honestly believed the previous generationsof women that had declared “no, thanks” to it were just more ignorant than I. Decades later, I am realizing it is more likely that they saw what their mothers and grandmothers had lived through when following the teachings and didn’t want the same for themselves.

    I actually love the crunchy aspect of NFP. But crunchiness only goes so far (I love the crunchiness of eating all organic, too–but I can’t afford it), and when the price gets too high, you will likely find that even women who want to believe in the Church’s teachings will end up making choices not in accord with them, just to survive and get by in this life. Most couples cannot handle large families well (I’ve seen enough behind the scenes to know of what I speak), and most women I know, despite having taking classes in CCL, Creighton, etc, just don’t have consistent enough signs over the long-term of many decades to avoid having surprise pregnancies while using NFP.

    Until the real experiences of many of us who have walked the walk are understood and explored, I’m afraid that finding out “what women think” isn’t going to make a whole lot of a difference. There is so much inauthenticity in the circles I have grown up in because these couples WANT to be good examples to the rest of the world so they pretend all is rosy with their NFP families. The reality is far different much of the time, but unless you’ve know these faithful Catholic women for years and have their trust, you are not likely to get the real story.

    I hear enough of the real stories of those Catholics really trying to live HV to know that all the talk of TOB in the world isn’t likely to change the minds or hearts of the masses on contraception any time too soon. Find a way to convince people that Jesus Christ is hurt by contraceptive use but thrilled by NFP use, and perhaps you can make some headway. I’ve read all the books and still find myself unconvinced of that, to be honest. In some ways, I think the Church had a better chance when they were more consistent with what they taught in all the centuries before: that NFP was only to be used in very serious circumstances rather than being the best thing since sliced bread. It might have been a hard teaching, but I think that now that NFP is touted as the be-all for Catholic marriage, it’s going to be much harder to convince people that contraceptives are problematic. At least back then there seemed to be more room for acknowledgment that NFP can be less than fantastic for marriages. Now you’re considered to have something wrong with you as a couple if you don’t find it just the most wonderful thing ever. It’s really no wonder so many people who find NFP use has been a huge strain on their marriages over the decades keep their mouths shut about it.

  • “There is so much inauthenticity in the circles I have grown up in because these couples WANT to be good examples to the rest of the world so they pretend all is rosy with their NFP families…. It might have been a hard teaching, but I think that now that NFP is touted as the be-all for Catholic marriage, it’s going to be much harder to convince people that contraceptives are problematic. At least back then there seemed to be more room for acknowledgment that NFP can be less than fantastic for marriages.”

    Marie, you might be onto something there. I see (at least on the internet) similar attitudes with regard to homeschooling and attendance at Traditional Latin Masses — if you try them and don’t come away thinking they are absolutely the most wonderful things ever, you get the impression there must be something wrong with you.

    I guess the bottom line is that there is never going to be a magic fix that guarantees that you marriage will always be happy, that your children will grow up to be saints and/or genuises, that you our your spouse will never be tempted to throw in the towel and look for greener pastures with someone else, etc. Trying to “sell” NFP, homeschooling, Latin Mass, TOB, or anything else as such a “fix” is bound to fail.

  • “the people I know who have had practiced NFP are still married 30, 40, 50 years later. Coincidence??”

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence, but, it might be a chicken and egg kind of situation (pardon the pun) — did these couples stay married because they practiced NFP, or did they practice NFP because they were morally conscientious people who would have stayed married anyway?

  • Alphatron Shinyskullus:

    ” or Moses bringing down the ten commandments, and engraved in stone is an admonition against a tubal ligation or vasectomy,” Actually, there is engraved in stone in the Fifth Commandment an admonition that prohibits unecessary surgery.

  • Am I alone in finding an eerie similarity between the “Truce of 1968,” as George Weigal calls it, when the Congregation for the Clergy decreed that Cardinal O’Boyle of Washington should lift canonical penalties against those priests whom he had disciplined for their public dissent from Humanae Vitae and the “Peace of Clement IX” during the Jansenist controversy?

    In both cases, after the Church had been riven by a decade-long dispute, a papal document was issued that was intended to be definitive.

    In both cases, the original quarrel was immediately forgotten and argument raged over the scope of papal authority to decide the question. In the Jansenist case, peace, of a sort, was achieved, when Pope Clement IX brokered an agreement that neither side would argue the question, at least, from the pulpit.

    The “Peace of Clement IX” lasted for about 35 years and ended in 1705 when Clement XI declared the clergy could no longer hide behind “respectful silence.” Eventually, in 1713, he issued Unigenitus and demanded the subscription of the clergy to it. There was enormous resistance, with bishops and priests appealing to a future Council (and being excommunicated for their pains, in 1718). As late as 1756, dissenters were still being denied the Last Rites.

    Will the “Truce of 1968” end in a similar fashion?

  • Not all women get pregnant readily. I was an exception. I have eleven children–needless to say we did not use contraception. We took things as they came. Now at 94 years old, I have eleven children who care about me and see that I have everything i need, My husband has been gone for six years and we all still miss him. Because I had two pair of twins, the Dr. thought I ovulated twice a month–they were fraternal, so using the rhythm method was not successful. We managed and all our children were well fed, learned to work, and all of them who wanted to were able to extend their education. With Jack and I, artificial birth control was not an optiion.

    I would not change my life for any one else I know.

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