Catholics take note: When it comes to helping women understand what the Church teaches about contraception, our job isn’t nearly as tough as we thought.
I know, it doesn’t always seem that way. Especially if one of last spring’s favorite statistics—“98 percent of Catholic women use contraception”—is still echoing in your ears.
Trying to tell 98 percent of any population that they’re wrong is a task that would daunt most anyone. Make that population a female one, and even the likes of Isaiah and Jeremiah would start quaking in their boots.
Nevertheless, in presenting the Church’s teachings about married love and the gift of life, that’s not what we’re doing. 98 percent of Catholic women don’t disagree with the Church. And thanks to the Women, Faith, and Culture Project, there’s now a study to prove that.
“What Catholic Women Think: Faith, Conscience, and Contraception” was released last week by the inestimable Mary Hasson and her co-author, Michelle Hill. In great detail, it confirms what some of us have been saying all along: Catholic women’s attitudes about contraception are much more nuanced and diverse than MSNBC would have people believe.
In a nutshell, the study found that while only 13 percent of church-going Catholic women are completely on board with the Church’s teachings on family planning, young women (ages 18-34) are far more receptive, with 27 percent in full agreement with Rome.
Moreover, when the women in question are women who go to Mass weekly and have been to confession at least once in the past year, 37 percent stand with the Church on the issue of contraception.
Which, is to say that more than a third of the women sitting in the pews on most Sundays believe and live what the Church teaches.
Furthermore, the study shows that even many of the women who aren’t 100 percent in line with the Church aren’t waiting to throw rotten tomatoes at anyone who dares utter the letters “NFP.” 44 percent of all Mass-going women accept at least some of the Church’s teachings on family planning. And 53 percent of those women say they’re open to learning more about what the Church teaches. 50 percent of younger Catholic women overall said the same.
Unfortunately, not all the news from the study is quite so cheering.
The results also show that somewhere along the line, 85 percent of Mass-going Catholics have picked up the idea that they can be good Catholics without following the Church’s teachings on contraception.
But they can’t.
As uncomfortable as it is to say and as unpleasant as it is to hear, contraception is still a mortal sin, which in Catholic speak is as serious as sin gets. It’s a sin that robs the soul of sanctifying grace. And sanctifying grace is what enables us to be good Catholics. It’s the fuel upon which our souls run: It’s God’s own life in us. Without that life, we can’t receive Christ in the Eucharist. Without that life, we can’t be conformed into the images of Christ we’re called to be.
That being said, contraception is only a mortal sin if you freely choose to contracept and actually know what you’re doing is wrong, something that the study says many Catholic women don’t know. In fact, 33 percent of Catholic women think that the Church is okey-dokey with couples getting to decide whether or not they’re going to use contraception.
That’s a problem. The number of Catholic women using contraception is an even bigger problem. But they are both problems that can be fixed…or at least mitigated.
If there’s a central truth to which the Hasson/Hill study points, it’s this: Women are open to hearing what the Church has to say. Many even want to hear what the Church has to say. They’ve already heard the culture’s point of view. They’ve experienced the consequences of living according to that point of view. And they know firsthand that point of view is seriously lacking.
But if no one offers them something different, if no one steps up to the plate and shows them a better way, few will look for it on their own. Fewer still will find it.
If, as a Church, we really want to help women (and men), all of us have to get serious about showing them that better way—explaining how contraception harms their bodies, their souls, and their relationships; introducing them to natural forms of family planning that respect the Church’s teachings on life; and schooling them in the true meaning of sexuality.
On one level, that task falls to all of us—parents, friends, co-workers, and religious educators, prudently sharing our thoughts and experiences as the occasion arises.
Far more fundamentally, however, it falls to priests and bishops.
According to the study, 72 percent of the women rely primarily on the Sunday homily for their faith formation. Which means if they’re not hearing about the Church’s teachings on love and life there, they’re not hearing about them anywhere
And many aren’t. For more than two generations, there has been only silence from the majority of our Church’s pulpits on the issue of contraception. Too many pastors and shepherds of souls have kept mum on the question, instead leaving it to the culture to form the Catholic conscience. Or, more accurately, malform the Catholic conscience.
The study doesn’t give us a reason for that. Anecdotally, we can hazard a guess that a little of the reticence stems from disagreement with Church teaching; much more from the fear of alienating parishioners.
But that shouldn’t be the case. No one has to be afraid. Not anymore. The Hasson/Hill study makes it clear: Women are listening.
Doesn’t that mean it’s high time someone starts talking?
Emily Stimpson is a Contributing Editor to “Our Sunday Visitor” and the author of “The Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide for the Single Years,” where she dishes on the Church’s teachings about women, marriage, sex, work, beauty, suffering, and more.