Back in February this year, when the battle between religious leaders and the Obama administration over the latter’s contraceptive mandate reached a new pitch of intensity, the White House defended its policy by alleging that 98 per cent of Catholic women had used contraception. If that was the case, we were meant to ask, what on earth were the Catholic bishops, for one, making a song and dance about? Hadn’t their own female constituency effectively deserted them on this issue?
The claim, quoted far and wide at the time, turned out to be a political factoid rather than a real statistic. People who analysed the Guttmacher Institute study it came from pointed out that the study was selective and self-contradictory. For a start it was based on a survey restricted to women aged between 15 and 44, so it could say nothing about women between 45 and 100. And one table showed that 11 per cent sexually active Catholic women who did not want to become pregnant were using no method of contraception at all.
Still, nobody is pretending that hordes of Catholics don’t dissent from their Church’s “thou shalt not” regarding contraception. We do not need the Guttmacher Institute or the White House to tell us that. Nor do we need them to tell us why the many Catholics who never go to church would not bother with one of its more difficult moral teachings.
What we don’t know is why practising Catholics who do go to Mass — and even, if only occasionally, to confession — also feel entitled to reject the teaching.
Why, for instance, do “Catholic moms in minivans drop their children at the parish school and head to their gynaecologists to be fitted for diaphragms or to get a new prescription for ‘the pill’ — and think nothing of it,” as the authors of a new study, What Catholic Women Think About Faith, Conscience, and Contraception, put it.
Do the parish moms have an accurate idea of the Church’s teaching on family planning? After four decades of dissent it would be surprising if they all did. And when the teaching is presented accurately to practising Catholics are they more open to it? What are their reasons for rejecting it, and what would they like to know more about?
For all the times Catholic women have been surveyed on whether they have “ever used” contraceptives, no-one has asked those who practice their faith but not its teaching on family planning, “Why?”, say the study’s authors, lawyer Mary Rice Hasson, a Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C, and director of the Women, Faith, and Culture project, and Michele M. Hill, a Baltimore Catholic and co-director of the project.
National survey of church-going women
To answer that question a national online survey of church-going Catholic women aged 18 to 54 was carried out in June and July of last year by the polling company inc./WomanTrend. (This is a preliminary report, say the authors, as further insights are expected from focus groups and ongoing in-depth interviews with 100 of the women.) Of the 824 women in the sample, half attended church at least weekly, while the other half attended less than weekly but at least a few times a year.
Their responses confirm that, on this issue at least, church-going Catholics have been influenced far more by popular culture than by Catholic teaching on sex and reproduction. Fully 85 percent of all the women believe they can be “good Catholics” even if they do not accept some of this teaching, including the 37 percent who completely reject it.
The picture, of course, looks decidedly better among regular Mass-goers. Among young women (18-34) who attend every week, 27 percent completely accept the Church’s teaching, and among those who both attend Mass weekly and have been to confession within the past year that figure rises to 37 percent. Just 24 percent of the women who go to Mass every week completely reject the teaching on contraception, and for those who have been to confession that figure drops to 12 percent.
Even among the dissenting majority, however, not all are closed to the Church’s message on this subject. Hasson and Hill point out that about a third of these women mistakenly believe that the Church itself gives them the right to make up their own minds about which methods of family planning are morally acceptable. Many do not reject the Church’s authority out of hand.
Top reasons for contraceptive use
Mistakenly or not, 53 per cent of all women in the study who dissent in part or completely from church teaching cite a couple’s “moral right” to decide which method of family planning they will use. This makes it the top reason given for rejecting church teaching on the matter.
Two other reasons are cited frequently among this group: 46 percent say couples have “the right to enjoy sexual pleasure without worrying about pregnancy”, and 41 percent think that natural family planning is not an effective method to space or postpone pregnancy.
The authors perceive two main dynamics shaping these views: the influence of a cultural mindset that divorces sex from procreation and promises “sexual pleasure without consequences”, and a deficit on the church side in presenting Church teaching.
The latter can be deduced from the fact that 72 per cent of women surveyed said they rely mainly on the homily at Sunday Mass for learning about the faith, and yet just 15 per cent of that group fully accept the Church’s teaching on sex and reproduction. The weekly Mass homily, the authors say, “seems to represent a lost opportunity when it comes to conscience formation on the contraception issue.”
As for cultural influences, they seem likely (although the authors don’t say so) to account for at least some of the scepticism about natural family planning given the systematic bad press NFP is give by mainstream family planners and the media.
For the pastors of the Church, all this represents a steep challenge. Yet Catholic women may be more receptive to the Church’s view of things than first appears.
Openness of the “soft middle”
Importantly, the survey shows they are more open to children than the average American, their “ideal” number of children averaging 3.5 (or 4 if money were not a factor) compared with the American ideal of two or fewer.
Also, say the study authors, “When presented with an accurate description of the Church’s teachings on family planning many Catholic women show reluctance to completely reject the Church’s teaching.”
Instead, three groups emerge: “the faithful” (who fully accept the teaching — 13 percent of the sample), “the dissenters” (who completely reject it — 37 percent), and the “soft middle” (who accept “parts” of the teaching). In addition, a significant number of women in the “soft middle” (about half of weekly Mass-goers) show openness to learning more about church teaching on contraception and natural family planning.
Good will shown by many women in the “middle” represents an opportunity for the Church, the authors point out — and natural family planning may be a good starting point for communicating the Church’s teaching about procreation. About one in four of those who attend Mass regularly shows an interest in learning more about the method: hearing from other couples about the health and relationship benefits of NFP, what doctors say about it, and scientific evidence about its effectiveness. Such messages may be more persuasive than spiritual or authoritative ones, the authors suggest.
But alongside their message that many Catholic women are “reachable” the authors warn that the task is becoming more complicated. While the survey shows 10 percent of church-going women have had abortions (lower than the national average), 17 percent of younger women have used emergency contraception. This means that the Church has to inform women about the potentially abortifacient nature of EC “as well as arguing more persuasively that contraception itself is wrong.”
The Catholic bishops are fighting the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate — that is, the policy of forcing all employers, including Catholic institutions such as hospitals and schools, to provide full cover for contraceptives, sterilisation and emergency contraception in their health insurance plans — as an attack on the free exercise of religion, which it is.
But in light of the information in “What Catholic Women Think…” the mandate may be a blessing in disguise. By forcing the issue of contraception to the top of the Church’s public agenda it has created an opportunity for the Church to have an internal conversation on the subject — the kind of opportunity that perhaps has not been seen since Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae in 1968.
The study from the Women Faith and Culture project shows that such a discussion is long overdue.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.