September 18, 2012

What Catholic women think about contraception

By Rebecca Ryskind Teti *

It’s a fact. Many Catholic women use contraceptives in spite of the Church’s moral prohibition.

Some of us lament that and others celebrate it, but we all tend to talk about Catholics who contracept as if they weren’t right in the room while we’re discussing them.

No one ever asks them what they think and why.

Until Mary Rice Hasson, that is. Forty-four years after the promulgation of Humanae Vitae, she seems to be the first person to think of asking women directly what they think.

Hasson, a fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center (and --full disclosure-- a friend), just released preliminary findings from an ongoing project investigating Catholic women’s attitudes about faith and culture. 

What Catholic Women Think About Faith, Conscience & Contraception reviews some things we know. In a sample of 834 Church-going women split about evenly between those 18-34 and those 34-54, most Catholic women of child-bearing age either reject Church teaching about family planning outright or accept it only in part.

Acceptance of Church teaching climbs among those who attend Mass weekly as opposed to sporadically, and rises to 37% among those who take part in the sacrament of Confession.

That’s the sad news we already knew. More hopeful is that Hasson and co-author Michele Hill find that although compliance with Church teaching is low, willingness to think anew on the subject is high. “53% of weekly Mass-goers who accept 'parts' but 'not all' of Church teachings on family planning say they are receptive to learning more about them.”

That’s a highly suggestive finding, and moreso when we consider something else the report reveals: 72% of church-going Catholic women rely on homilies as their primary source of Church teaching.

In an email interview, I asked Mary Hasson to comment on the significance of her research. Although the study is ongoing, Hasson made two significant points.

First, she hopes Catholic readers will share the report with their parish priests, pre-Cana ministers, NFP coordinators and the like. “We particularly need,” she says, “to encourage our priests to present the Church’s teaching with confidence in the truth – and in women’s good will and receptivity. The homily has impact.”

Hasson hopes, though, that not only priests and catechists but individual lay Catholics will do a serious examination of conscience on the language of judgment they use in presenting Church teaching. “The women in our study do not have a good understanding of ‘conscience,’ so appeals to authority not only won't work but will be counter-productive. It may sound trite, but we really do have to meet women where they are.”

One of the best findings in her research, Hasson says, is that Catholic women –even those who contracept—are very pro-child: moreso than the average American. She fears that too often those who promote Church teaching assume that Catholics who contracept must have an anti-child mentality, when the research suggests that simply is not so.

“Too often,” Hasson observes, “we helpful souls open the discussion by arguing about whether a woman really could handle more children if she were generous and women feel disrespected and judged.”

“If we instead take as a starting point that a woman together with her husband has come to a prudential decision they can’t have more children now, then the conversation begins not in the realm of second-guessing their judgment, but in the realm of the practical: what’s the best way to do that? Did you know you can space your children in a way that’s healthy, natural, effective, pleasing to God, and keeps the conversation open with respect to more kids?”
Says Hasson: “That is where women begin to be more receptive: when they feel their personal situations are respected.”

Hasson observes that the interviews she’s been doing reinforce the truth of theologian Janet Smith’s observation that women who at first use Natural Family Planning for reasons of their own gradually come to be more open to life in the process.

“The Catholic women I spoke with who are using NFP for health reasons are satisfied with it, have high confidence in its effectiveness and – not surprisingly—averaged about four kids. The method itself did good things for them.”

Hasson says she hopes priests and catechists will be forthright in addressing the issue, but at the same time broach the topic in the form of an invitation to discover the benefits of Natural Family Planning rather than an authoritative demand that women give up the pill before they have heard persuasive reasons for doing so. As Blessed John Paul II observed, the truth must be proposed, not imposed.

Rebecca Ryskind Teti is Operations Coordinator for the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at the Busch School of Business & Economics at CUA, though the opinions are her own. This column is modified from an earlier version that first appeared in Faith & Family  magazine.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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