NEW YORK — Most Catholic women use artificial contraception, according to a new report issued by the Guttmacher Institute.
That’s the research group allied with Planned Parenthood, the target of a fierce campaign by pro-life advocates and House Republicans to defund the “family planning” organization.
The fresh data provided by “Countering Conventional Wisdom: New Evidence on Religion and Contraceptive Use” finds, among other things, that 68% of Catholic women use contraception and that only 2% use natural family planning.
The findings have been disputed by some pro-life critics, but it confirms what Church leaders call a decades-long failure to transmit the prophetic teaching of Humanae Vitae.
Yet the damning statistics haven’t discouraged parish priests from experimenting with new arguments and methods to encourage Catholics to embrace Church teaching on contraception.
Inspired by Blessed Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body, and a growing awareness that Humanae Vitae’s prescient wisdom has become even more valuable, priests use homilies, pre-Cana sessions and the confessional to foster enthusiasm for this countercultural teaching.
“When the pill was approved [by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration] in 1960, people were told it would make everything better,” noted Msgr. Edward Filardi, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Bethesda, Md. “So, one of my openings is this: Let’s look at the promises and see how many were actually fulfilled. The pill was supposed to strengthen marriage and family life, and instead it’s astounding to see what has actually happened.”
The Guttmacher Institute’s study was released in April, as Planned Parenthood’s allies on Capitol Hill sought to de-emphasize the organization’s commitment to abortion services and characterize it as the nation’s chief provider of contraceptive services and health screenings for poor women.
Asked about the timing of the Guttmacher report, Joerg Dreweke, a co-author, said the study had been in the works for over a year, well before the GOP targeted Planned Parenthood, but after the passage of the health-reform bill. Asked to identify the funding sources for the report, Dreweke responded in an email: “The study was foundation-funded. It was neither funded by Planned Parenthood nor the federal government. The foundation wishes to remain anonymous.”
As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops joined forces with pro-life groups to block federal funding for Planned Parenthood, the Guttmacher report targeted the discrepancy between the high level of contraceptive use by Catholic women and the legislative goals of religious organizations like the USCCB.
Asked about the report’s focus on contraceptive use by Catholic women, Dreweke stated: “The USCCB has been heavily involved in advocating on public policy related to contraception for many years, including most recently the IOM [Institute of Medicine] process to determine women’s preventive-health services that should be covered without cost sharing. Therefore, it makes eminent sense to examine the actual contraceptive behaviors of the women on whose behalf they claim to speak.”
In fact, the disparity between official Church teaching and the actual practices of self-identified Catholics has been the focus of several recent surveys that partisan groups have used to challenge religious opposition to life issues, as well as same-sex “marriage.”
Michael New, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama, notes that many such surveys “don’t take into consideration frequency of church attendance. The Guttmacher report addressed that issue.”
Catholic attitudes and practices on social issues matter, said New, “because after Roe v. Wade the Church was the one institution of any consequence to condemn abortion. Not every Catholic believes in Church teaching, but the Church itself still has influence.”
An effective catechetical approach to Humanae Vitae, then, will likely have far-reaching consequences for the broader national debate on the morality of abortion and contraception. But parish priests in the trenches say they must proceed with prudence as well as courage, educating their flock about the value of natural family planning, for example, while fostering a re-examination of the “contraceptive mentality.”
Evidence that rising use of contraception has paralleled a steady increase in marital breakups and unwed pregnancies gives people pause, said Msgr. Filardi, who tells couples that just 5% of married couples who use natural family planning will divorce.
Given the widespread ignorance regarding Church teaching among engaged couples, parish priests find that their own counseling sessions are more effective when they are part of a larger, diocesan-wide effort to address the meaning and purpose of human sexuality in an integrated manner.
Confessions and Homilies
Father John Evans, the parochial vicar at Holy Cross Church in Batavia, Ill., appreciates the fact that his pre-Cana sessions build on the catechetical framework provided by the Diocese of Rockford, which mandate natural family planning instruction and theology of the body seminars for engaged couples. “They have already been presented with the Church’s teaching, and I use that as a springboard for further discussion.”
For the most part, Father Evans finds engaged couples to be “very open. When I emphasized the health complications that can come from using contraceptives, one young woman told me, ‘I would never put such a horrible thing in my body.’”
During confession, however, Father Evans confronts a more complicated reality: “I hear people struggling to live the challenge of an authentic marriage open to life. I encourage them to keep trying. Since they are talking to me about this, they know it’s a sin, and they are trying not to do it. In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI expresses compassion for couples trying to live this teaching, and he acknowledged that it was difficult to do. He also said it would take time for people to understand and absorb this teaching.”
For most priests, spiritual counsel during confession and pre-Cana sessions offer an ideal context for exploring this sensitive issue, while Sunday homilies on Humanae Vitae yield unpredictable results. Some pastors who address the subject will be treated to the spectacle of an angry parishioner leaving the Church.
“The Church Fathers warned that when you preach the truth, it hits a certain individual like a missile. It hurts because they need to change, and they won’t do that because of a lack of trust,” said Father Stanley Stuglik, an associate pastor of St. Catherine of Alexandria in Oak Lawn, Ill., a Chicago suburb.
Father Stuglik has turned to the theology of the body to help him develop and hone his message.
“Our late Holy Father — a profound philosopher and theologian — set out to provide a more compelling theological rationale for Humanae Vitae. He teaches that our bodies are made to be relationship, and we are not made for ourselves alone. When married couples contracept, they say, ‘I give all of myself but my fertility.’ When we limit ourselves, it can’t be a total self-gift, and it hurts the marriage.”
Theresa Notare, assistant director of the natural family planning program at the bishops’ conference, has noticed a “mini-explosion” of catechetical programs that showcase the theology of the body.
“Today, when people look at what is true in their own life, personal experience is the focal point. Pope John Paul II took on the Church’s consistent teaching on human sexuality, marriage and responsible parenthood and cast it in modern language and incorporated modern sensitivities,” Notare observed. “All of this was presented from an extremely positive, uplifting perspective.”
Now, pastors can make use of an array of theology of the body initiatives, from correspondence courses to iPhone applications, designed to bring the late Pope’s groundbreaking insights into the lives of ordinary Catholics.
The U.S. bishops have welcomed this development and showcased John Paul’s teaching in their recent pastoral letter on marriage.
“This is a slow revolution, but it’s happening, and the bishops recognize it, too,” said Notare. “Despite budget cuts, the bishops want the theology of the body to be taught and natural family planning instruction to be provided.”
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.