Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Contraception, Politics, and Culture

Catholics have been energized politically since the revelation of the religious-liberty-destroying HHS mandate forcing contraception coverage in violation of the consciences of Catholic employers. While it is clear to most orthodox Catholics, some Protestants, and those well-versed in Constitutional law that the HHS mandate is abhorrent, it is equally clear that nominal Catholics, other Protestants, and secular society see no problem with contraception as health care.

There is something to be said for winning small battles, and for winning political battles, and I certainly don’t want Catholics or the Bishops to let up their pressure on the Obama administration for forcing its mandate on us. I think it is shortsighted, though, to see the endgame as simply overturning the mandate; similarly, I don’t think it suffices to express our dissent from the mandate as simply because “it violates our first amendment rights.” A huge proportion of the population not only doesn’t see anything wrong with contraception, but considers it a great good for society. I imagine most of these people think it is just as odd for Catholics to be against contraception as it is for the Amish to be against electricity. Therefore, we need to not only explain why we are against the contraception mandate, but why we are against contraception itself (which T&C bloggers have done many times; some examples are here, here, and here).

In discussions among faithful Catholics about contraception, the point usually gets made that we do not hear enough about the evils of contraception from the pulpit. Not being a priest myself, I can only speculate on why this might be: 1) some priests do not know (I can’t imagine) or 2) do not agree with the Church’s teaching, continuing the “tradition” of dissent from Humanae Vitae, but the most likely reason seems to be that 3) priests do not want to alienate their flock, the vast majority of whom (they assume) buy into the secular mindset that contraception is kosher.
Why would priests assume this? Well, again, in discussions among faithful Catholics about contraception, the point also usually gets made that “90% of Catholics contracept.” It isn’t clear where this high percentage comes from, but our priests deserve to know about recent polls that refute it. Matt mentioned one a while ago, and Emily at CatholicVote mentioned another last week:
The data confirms that most Catholic women do not fully support the Church’s teachings on contraception and natural family planning. However, Catholic women who regularly participate in the Church’s sacramental life (Mass and Confession) agree with the teachings on contraception and family planning in significantly higher numbers than women overall. Moreover, many Catholic women express partial agreement with these teachings and show encouraging receptivity to learning more about them. This receptivity offers the Church a previously unrealized opportunity to communicate those teachings more persuasively and effectively…
Our data suggests that the Church might do well to focus pastoral outreach on the “soft middle,” women who neither embrace the Church’s teaching on contraception, nor reject it out of hand. A strong plurality (44%) of church-going women express a nuanced view of Church teachings, saying they accept “parts” but “not all” of the teaching on contraception. These women embrace their faith (90% overall say their Catholic faith is an important part of daily life) and few show hardened opposition to the Church’s authority (just 18% say their partial rejection of the Church’s teaching is because they do not accept the Church’s moral authority on these issues).
Fifty-three percent of weekly Mass-goers who accept parts but not all of Church teaching indicate some openness to learning more about the Church teachings on contraception. And two-thirds (67%) of these receptive women are already connected in some way to parish life. In short, they are reachable, given the right message and approach. The most persuasive messages may be more practical and benefits-oriented than spiritual or authoritative. Women show interest in hearing testimonies from other couples on the health and relationship benefits of natural family planning (23%) and natural family planning’s effectiveness (22%). They also indicate interest in a doctor’s recommendation of natural family planning and its effectiveness (23%) and studies that show natural family planning is highly effective (22%).
The research doesn’t paint the rosiest of pictures; Catholics have not been immune from the sexual licentiousness our culture has been bent on promoting for the past half-century. But I think the following conclusions can certainly be made:
  1. If priests do not talk to their congregations about contraception, the culture will. I can’t imagine another issue of Church teaching where priests would defer to the majority opinion on the matter. The culture doesn’t seem too keen on accepting that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist or that he was God as well as man, but no priest would back down on these teachings. While every priest would promote the eighth commandment, what is contraception if not lying with one’s body?
  2. The people in the pews every week are a much more sympathetic audience than priests may think. Even if a large proportion of Catholics use contraception (which is disputed), the proportion falls dramatically when you look at regular Mass attendees. And even among those who don’t fully agree with the Church’s teaching, many are open to hearing more.
  3. Educating the parish is not just the priests’ job. The laity, who may have more medical knowledge or practical experience with NFP and the side-effects of contraception, need to step up as educators, mentors, and friends for those who struggle with the Church’s teaching or with using Natural Family Planning.
So be emboldened, priest-readers of T&C. Many in the pews agree with the Church’s teaching on contraception, many want to hear more about the Church’s teaching on contraception, and very few adamantly disagree with it. Don’t be concerned that some may think  “this saying is hard; who can accept it?” When you preach on this subject, you will be preaching to the choir but the choir will thank you for it.

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