Why Do Catholics Contracept and What Can the Church Do about It?

Someday I’ll write a post about lies, damned lies, and statistics so you will know that the “98% of Catholic women use artificial birth control” you’ve seen bandied about as though it were gospel is a distorted statistic turned damned lie.  I’ve already written one in which I touched on how it doesn’t matter if every self-identified Catholic on the planet uses birth control; the Church isn’t a democracy–it’s here to proclaim the truth, not to succumb to the culture.
However, it is sad but true that most Catholics ignore the Church’s teaching on this issue.  And while I’m in no position to know the hearts of every contracepting Catholic out there, it doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot of painful soul-searching and conscience-forming going on.  And the failure of the majority of even weekly mass-goers to adhere to this teaching cannot be solely blamed on them.  True, we are all products of a culture that puts things before people and gives us all kinds of messages about why small families are desirable and that artificial contraception is the way to achieve that.  But our Church has a much more compelling message, full of truth and wisdom and beauty, and it’s not being heard.  Why?
It’s not being HEARD, because it’s not being spoken.  By the Vatican, yes.  In the teachings, yes.  By teachers and parents and priests, from whom the majority of Catholics receive their catechesis?  Not so much.
Speaking for myself, I remember knowing, without knowing HOW I knew this, that the Church believed birth control was wrong.  I also recall having the definite impression that this was some old-fashioned idea we were all free to ignore.  Everyone used birth control, right?  In high school we watched some squicky movie about Natural Family Planning but all that cervical mucus talk was a big turn-off.  No one ever told me, NOT ONCE, why birth control was wrong.
What changed my mind?  I took a Christian Marriage class in college.  I read Humanae Vitae.  I squirmed uncomfortably as I read it, realizing that it made a lot of sense, that a Church with 2,000 years of Tradition and brilliant theologians and the Holy Spirit to back it all up probably was more trustworthy than the current culture I’d been raised in.  I could feel my conscience pricking me as I properly informed it.  But it wasn’t all negative–not at all!  The teaching was beautiful!  The Church’s vision of marriage and family–we read Familiaris Consortio as well–was so elevated compared to the world’s!  As I read, I was thinking, “Why did no one ever tell me this?  Why doesn’t everyone know this?”
I was already engaged–to a Protestant (at that time) who did not want children right away and did not (then) buy into all these “new” ideas I was sharing.  Fortunately, my Christan Marriage class also required that we read The Art of Natural Family Planning.  I was ready to read it then and I was sold.  I was able to convince my husband-to-be based on the science behind the method.  Not that our path to conforming to this teaching was smooth and easy–following your conscience can be hard.
What’s wrong with this picture?  I went to Catholic schools for 12 years.  I attended Mass every Sunday and lots of other days besides.  But I had to be a Senior in college taking a non-required class to hear this message.
My Catholic-school educated kids have heard a lot more.  They’ve gotten an earful from me, of course, but they’ve also heard at least some of this in their religion classes in high school.  I’m sorry to say though that if what they tell me is true, Catholic moral instruction should be starting a lot earlier.  And what about kids who get one hour of CCD a week?
I’m sure they go over all this in Engaged Encounters, but let’s get real.  Most of those couples are sexually active and contracepting already.
I have never, ever heard a priest address this from the pulpit.  NEVER.  I’ve heard there are some that do, but it’s rare.  Why?  For starters, a lot of them don’t buy into it themselves.  Or they feel that as celibates they cannot speak to this with authority.   My husband and I once went to discuss a disagreement we were having over family planning–not HOW but WHEN–with one of our priests.  Almost the first words out of his mouth were, “You know you can follow your conscience in family planning matters.”
Finally, does anyone want to tell all the people at Mass that somewhere around 85% of the sexually active ones need to confess their contraceptive use and change their ways before they approach the altar for Communion?  Of course they don’t.
But they need to.  If the recent brouhaha over insurance coverage for contraceptives has shown us anything, it’s demonstrated that even Catholics who dissent from these teachings respect the Church for holding fast to them even in opposition to most of their faithful.  Maybe, just maybe, if the Church would be as brave about proclaiming the teaching to its flock as it has been about defending it from the wider culture, more people might take it seriously!
I would never argue against the primacy of conscience.  But if you haven’t prayerfully studied Humane Vitae, the Catechism, and other Church teachings on these issues, your dissent is based on ignorance, not conscience.  If you would never, ever eat meat on Friday during Lent, but you swallow a birth control pill every day without thinking twice about it, maybe you should.

23 thoughts on “Why Do Catholics Contracept and What Can the Church Do about It?

  1. I am a practicing Catholic who used contraception. I’ve thought about it, read about it, prayed about and Joel and I almost left the Church over this issue. We were a breath away from becoming Methodists. But, I am a Catholic down to my roots. Part of what I love about the Church are the traditions of Mass, the prayers, the Rosary, the songs. Catholicism brings me to a closer relationship with God, which I believe is the point of any religion. I am a not a perfect Catholic (maybe not even an ideal one in the Church’s eyes) but at the end of the day it’s not the Church’s judgement that concerns me, it’s God’s.

    1. Thanks for sharing your journey, Julie. It is not my intention to judge, but to provide information that I don’t think a lot of Catholics have ever even considered before making family planning decisions.

  2. Believe me, I don’t feel judged. I agree with the fact that the Church does not do an adequate job of providing information in this area. It’s tough being a Catholic these days. It’s tough being a woman these days. I think everyone is feeling attacked and/or vulnerable. That’s where faith comes in. Without faith in a higher power, in God, all of this life turmoil would truly be overwhelming. I also believe respectful dialogue is vital and it’s completely absent (or at least seems to be) in the current political environment. Every issue is portrayed as “us against them” and some days I feel like “us”, others like “them”, and then there are the days I just don’t know. I like this post though. Thanks for sharing.

    1. One of the things I love about blogging–and also about Facebook, usually anyway–is that I have finally found somewhere in which I can engage in the kind of discussion you are talking about. So far, at least, people are not rude when they visit my blog even when they disagree. Likewise on my Wall. I’ve been able to have respectful exchanges of ideas and hopefully everyone at least learns that disagreement doesn’t have to equal hatred and that we might very well have things in common.

  3. Karen

    I was raised by CINO (Catholic In Name Only) parents. We went to Mass every Sunday–making sure to sit up front so the priest could see us, according to my mother–and we were sent to CCD, received the Sacraments, and even were sent to private Catholic high schools. We even graduated from Catholic colleges (if you can call Notre Dame Catholic anymore, but back then it was considered a Catholic school! :P)
    However, it was, as I’ve recently figured out, done mostly for cultural reasons and also out of fear. When I was engaged to be married, my mom pulled me aside and asked if I had made an appointment with my doctor so she could “set me up” with something.” I said. “You mean the Pill?” She said yes, and when I pointed out that the Pill increased the risk of stroke and breast cancer, both of which run in our family, she shrugged and said, “All I know is, if the Pope had to raise a baby by himself, he wouldn’t be against the Pill.”
    is your head spinning yet? Mine sure was. My mom was dismayed and upset when she found out we were using NFP, and sighed, “Well, I guess you’ll end up with a classroom full of kids.” Later, after she had disowned me, my grandmother cautiously asked her if she’d heard that we had had a second child. My mom snapped, “Don’t talk to me about it, I don’t want to THINK about it! And I’m sure there’ll be another one pretty soon!” (There was. And when we showed up to my grandmother’s funeral wtih #3 in tow, she wouldn’t even look at him. WEIRDO.) My mother was one of those who self-identify as Catholic, but refuse to acknowledge the wisdom of the Church.
    Anyway, it is not enough to be “raised Catholic”. One has to be raised to be not just Catholic but pro-life. I did, during my post-graduate years, use barrier methods of contraception, and I justified it by the fact that I was not married to my boyfriend, and we were not in a position to have kids. Looking back, I just should have never had sex then in the first place. It was by God’s grace that I got out of that relationship and later married a good, devout Catholic, pro-life man. We have used NFP for nearly 13 years and have four wonderful boys. We are raising them to see babies not as the enemy, but as people to be celebrated.
    Boy, this got long. I will say that even my (supposedly) Catholic grandmother had an illegal abortion back in the 1940s. According to my grandfather, she was upset at being pregnant so soon after her first child, and said they didn’t have enough money for a second child so soon. It was, I think, in 1945 or so. I’m pretty sure her abortion experience contributed to her fear and hatred of doctors, which led to her not seeking treatment for symptoms that turned to be caused by the cancer that killed her.

    1. Wow, Karen. I am so sorry about your mom. Thank you for sharing all of this. I guess the blessing is that she sent you to Catholic schools for one reason, but you came away with it with faith she did not have. I think a lot of parents are just checking off boxed by attending Mass or sending their kids to Catholic schools. We do all that but we spend a lot of time talking about those things too. The other day a birth control commercial came on and my (very innocent) eleven-year-old asked me about it. I tried to explain, that’s what some people do when they don’t want a baby and he said, “That’s just awful. Why wouldn’t anyone want a baby?” Of course one of the PR “problems” with NFP is that those of us who use it tend to have housefuls of children, which detractors think means it doesn’t work instead of realizing that it’s just about the mindset of those who tend to use it. I want to point to the six year gap between 3 and 4 and the 3.5 year gap between 4 and 5 and say, “See? It DOES work!”

      1. Karen

        I think one reason we were sent to the Catholic high schools was because she had a poor opinion of the local public school. She had attended public high school, but then a Catholic women’s college (Mary Manse, now defunct), and she preferred the private school, naturally, over the large public school.
        I am very, very glad we were sent to private high schools; I have fond memories of my high school years, which I would not have had at the coed public school, if my experiences in elementary and junior high were any reliable sample.
        Regarding NFP and marriage prep: When we were going through our pre-Cana with our priest, he told us we were the ONLY couple he was counseling that was not already co-habitating. That was so sad. He was THRILLED that we had already decided to use NFP. When we went to our Engaged Couples Conference, the couple from Couple fo Couple League stood up there with their two small children, very close in age, and she was pregnant with their third, due in a month. They looked tired and weary, if happy. It was definitely not a good “selling point” for NFP.
        My husband has always said we should teach NFP, but our method (now called the Marquette Method) was not the one that Couple fo Couple League approved of when we applied, so we were turned down. I consider us a NFP success story. The gaps between our kids are 4.5 years, 2 years, and 4 years.

        1. I never heard of the Marquette Method. I originally did the whole sympto-thermal thing but eventually stepped down to mucus-only. Seems like if your method works that’s the only thing that matters! NFP has worked fine for us, when we followed the rules. 🙂

  4. Hi Leslie,
    The Church (here in Australia as well) is silent on issues related to contraception in school and at Mass, and I also think that many Catholics don’t think about it at all. I believe that the one teaching cannot be applied to all on this matter, individual circumstances vary so much. After practicing NFP for the past ten years and being blessed with two beautiful daughters, and losing seven other little lives during this time, my husband and I made the decision to start using artificial contraception. There are contributing medical factors, but the main reason is that I just cannot go through the pain of another pregnancy loss. While mine are very “western world” issues, I also think about the correlation of improved educational standards for women and decreasing birth rates. I think about the impact of population growth on God’s world. I think about my grandmother who had nine children, all deeply loved, but she spoke gently of the benefits of fewer children to me on several occasions.
    Decisions around matters such as contraception are complex. This does not mean that the Church should be so silent on the teachings related to the issue- as you rightly point out, if you haven’t studied the relevant doctrine on the issues, you are coming from a point of ignorance. However, not everyone has the capacity to access this material, which is where the Church and Catholic Schools come in.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story, Jo, and thanks for your thoughtful comments. Having experienced the grief of only one miscarriage I can certainly understand your feelings and I am so sorry.

  5. Margaret

    You asked about what is said in CCD about NFP. Not much, but unfortunately there are apparently some issues about what the Church teaches in the mind of one of the CCD teachers here in Knoxville. My middle daughter was telling her class about a girl she’d met when they had to do a TCAP writing test with the other kids enrolled in TNVA (the virtual academy home school in TN). The girl thought she was pregnant and was afraid to tell her mother. Well, the CCD teacher said out loud in front of the class,”Well, why didn’t she use birth control?” So much for Catholic educators having respect for the Church’s teachings.
    Gen knows what the Church teaches because we’ve discussed the issue at home and we’re not going to indignantly whip her out of the class because you hear stuff like that everywhere, but I was strongly disappointed to hear what this lady had told the CCD class.
    I think the use of contraception has left the door open for women to be used, dismissed, and discarded in even greater numbers than they already were before the Pill and I don’t think that anyone fully understood the wisdom of what Paul VI had to say in Humanae Vitae.
    Thanks for your blog post–great stuff!

    1. Thanks, Margaret. Oh my. I cannot say I am surprised, but your kids are lucky because at least they are being properly taught at home. I doubt the other kids in CCD have that advantage.

  6. I am commenting in a public forum so I can’t speak specifically, but my family’s history mirrors that of Jo who commented above. Too many children in too few years and a lack of choices in how to live your own life. As for my own history, I have used contraception for birth control reasons and I have used contraception for medical reasons. I have paid out of pocket for contraception because my health insurance didn’t cover the expense when it was for birth control and I’ve also paid the $5 dollar co-pay when it was prescribed for medical reasons. The effective use of contraception played a significant role in the conception of my first child. He wouldn’t be here without medical intervention. I understand where the Church is coming from on the issue contraception, but I do not agree with it. It’s one of several things the Church and I are not on the same page about, but overall, being a participating Catholic strengthens my relationship with God and provides my husband and I a framework to raise our children so that (hopefully) as adults they will continue their relationship God. I had a priest tell me at one point in my life that if I didn’t believe the Catholic Church was the best way to have an ongoing relationship with God, then I needed to go find the denomination what would enable me to do that. I appreciated his honesty and his frank assessment of my faith life and ultimately decided that I the Catholic Church was the best fit for me.

  7. mbcagle@juno.com

    Humanae Vitae (can’t figure out how to put it in italics) is a wonderful document to study. I agree, Leslie, that our spiritual directors in life, whether it be parents, Catholic school teachers, God parents, priests …, tend to stay away from controversial topics such as the use of artificial birth control. Heaven forbide that we ruffle anyone’s feathers! What a shame! It is often through disagreement that we grow whether it be by strengthening our own personal beliefs or by opening our eyes to our own misconceptions. I loved Humanae Vitae and encourage everyone to read it. I promise that you will find truth in this document.
    I also want to comment on how easily we as a population readily accept what is said in the media, in the doctor’s office, in our friends home … as truth. I am surprised, no shocked, to hear that artificial birth control is a women’s health issue. Ingesting hormones make you healthier? Are we assuming that there is no free will in when or how we share our love for/with our spouse? I almost lost my life due to a D&C I had after a miscarriage. While I knew there were risks, I never thought it would happen to me. There are risks/side effects to the pill. I wonder if these are ever explained in detail. It saddens me that a child could be considered a risk. I am speaking in terms of healthy women and NFP. I can’t help but think of a dear friend who eats only organic meats that contain no hormones or antibiotics, yet she takes the pill. LOL. I guess my point is even if I did not deeply believe in NFP based on the Church’s teaching, I would avoid the pill, especially, based on health reasons.
    Not everyone is called to raise a large family. I firmly believe this statement. Aren’t we blessed to have a healthy, natural method to help control the size of our families?
    I wish I could convey my ideas as eloquently as you, Leslie!

    1. You are too kind. Thank you for reading and commenting. I remember when I first learned about NFP one of the blurbs on the book was from someone who didn’t think there was anything morally wrong with artificial birth control but did not like the idea of polluting her body with chemicals! It’s amazing to me how these things are ignored, as though the Pill were somehow good for women. Also I hate the way pregnancy is portrayed as bad for women’s health when it is actually good for our bodies to do what God designed them to do!

  8. Clisby

    How many Catholics would never, ever, eat meat on a Friday in Lent?
    I’m not being snarky – I’m married to a man I consider to be a cultural Catholic, just like there are cultural Jews who don’t even make a nod to keeping kosher.
    I tend to think the Catholic Church can exert an emotional/social pull on people who have no intention of following all of the church’s directives.
    Which is fine with me, because if my husband had been opposed to birth control, he likely wouldn’t be my husband. (When it came to me and birth control, men got exactly 0% input and I got 100% input.)

    1. I never think you are being snarky, Clisby, and I always appreciate your comments. I do agree that there are cultural Catholics. I know many people who have left the Church and joined other denominations, who still seem very fond of aspects of the Church they grew up in, for example.

  9. David

    I was raised Catholic….went to catholic school…altar boy …the whole 10 yards….anyway I remember thinking how hillbilly and backwoods and black magic it always appeared to me. Right from the start. Anyway I think people don’t want to tackle the hard problems in the world they would rather just get on some high horse and act pompous no matter how contradictory to modern day living it seems.

    1. Thanks for your comment, David, even though I have to disagree with a lot of what you say! The Catholic Church,far from being “hillbilly and backwoods,” is an intellectual powerhouse with over 2,000 years of grappling with hard problems. Catholic Charities is THE largest charity in the United States, providing practical assistance to people having problems with modern day living. The Church holds to its moral truths regardless of popular opinion, which would tend to make it unpopular.

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  11. Jane

    Non-Catholic here. I think you inadvertently hit the nail on the head at the beginning. Education. We are insistent that sexual education be conducted by parents and not as part of school curriculum. But are they actually educating their children factually? I’m not convinced they are. Sex ed does not need to be a morality class. Morality (or lack thereof) does indeed need to be taught at home. It just needs to be the factual presentation of how the human body (male and female) work. Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to learn about these biological functions through an elective college course or even at the private schools we attended. We, as a society need to stop acting like the human reproduction process is somehow shameful and not a fact of life.
    Ok, stepping off my rant-box!!!

    1. I’ve got no problem with in-school age-appropriate sex ed. I have fond memories of Mr. Darst and his fallopian tube impersonation in high school! But it needs to be more comprehensive than a “tab A slot B” presentation. I for one didn’t have a clue about the details of how my own body worked until I read the Natural Family Planning book. Why shouldn’t the signs of fertility be commonly taught, whether you intend to use NFP or not? Also, is it morality teaching to tell kids that there are bonding hormones associated with sex and that it isn’t just a recreational bodily function divorced from all emotion? I think it’s actually easier to do sex ed in a religious school where at least theoretically everyone is on the same page about the morality part of it.

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