Why Catholic Women Use Contraception

Back in February this year, when the battle between religious leaders and the Obama administration over the latter’s contraceptive mandate reached a new pitch of intensity, the White House defended its policy by alleging that 98 per cent of Catholic women had used contraception. If that was the case, we were meant to ask, what on earth were the Catholic bishops, for one, making a song and dance about? Hadn’t their own female constituency effectively deserted them on this issue?

The claim, quoted far and wide at the time, turned out to be a political factoid rather than a real statistic. People who analysed the Guttmacher Institute study it came from pointed out that the study was selective and self-contradictory. For a start it was based on a survey restricted to women aged between 15 and 44, so it could say nothing about women between 45 and 100. And one table showed that 11 per cent sexually active Catholic women who did not want to become pregnant were using no method of contraception at all.

Still, nobody is pretending that hordes of Catholics don’t dissent from their Church’s “thou shalt not” regarding contraception. We do not need the Guttmacher Institute or the White House to tell us that. Nor do we need them to tell us why the many Catholics who never go to church would not bother with one of its more difficult moral teachings.

What we don’t know is why practising Catholics who do go to Mass — and even, if only occasionally, to confession — also feel entitled to reject the teaching.

Why, for instance, do “Catholic moms in minivans drop their children at the parish school and head to their gynaecologists to be fitted for diaphragms or to get a new prescription for ‘the pill’  — and think nothing of it,” as the authors of a new study, What Catholic Women Think About Faith, Conscience, and Contraception, put it.

Do the parish moms have an accurate idea of the Church’s teaching on family planning? After four decades of dissent it would be surprising if they all did. And when the teaching is presented accurately to practising Catholics are they more open to it? What are their reasons for rejecting it, and what would they like to know more about?

For all the times Catholic women have been surveyed on whether they have “ever used” contraceptives, no-one has asked those who practice their faith but not its teaching on family planning, “Why?”, say the study’s authors, lawyer Mary Rice Hasson, a Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C, and director of the Women, Faith, and Culture project, and Michele M. Hill, a Baltimore Catholic and co-director of the project.

National survey of church-going women

To answer that question a national online survey of church-going Catholic women aged 18 to 54 was carried out in June and July of last year by the polling company inc./WomanTrend. (This is a preliminary report, say the authors, as further insights are expected from focus groups and ongoing in-depth interviews with 100 of the women.) Of the 824 women in the sample, half attended church at least weekly, while the other half attended less than weekly but at least a few times a year.

Their responses confirm that, on this issue at least, church-going Catholics have been influenced far more by popular culture than by Catholic teaching on sex and reproduction. Fully 85 percent of all the women believe they can be “good Catholics” even if they do not accept some of this teaching, including the 37 percent who completely reject it.

The picture, of course, looks decidedly better among regular Mass-goers. Among young women (18-34) who attend every week, 27 percent completely accept the Church’s teaching, and among those who both attend Mass weekly and have been to confession within the past year that figure rises to 37 percent. Just 24 percent of the women who go to Mass every week completely reject the teaching on contraception, and for those who have been to confession that figure drops to 12 percent.

Even among the dissenting majority, however, not all are closed to the Church’s message on this subject. Hasson and Hill point out that about a third of these women mistakenly believe that the Church itself gives them the right to make up their own minds about which methods of family planning are morally acceptable. Many do not reject the Church’s authority out of hand.

Top reasons for contraceptive use

Mistakenly or not, 53 per cent of all women in the study who dissent in part or completely from church teaching cite a couple’s “moral right” to decide which method of family planning they will use. This makes it the top reason given for rejecting church teaching on the matter.

Two other reasons are cited frequently among this group: 46 percent say couples have “the right to enjoy sexual pleasure without worrying about pregnancy”, and 41 percent think that natural family planning is not an effective method to space or postpone pregnancy.

The authors perceive two main dynamics shaping these views: the influence of a cultural mindset that divorces sex from procreation and promises “sexual pleasure without consequences”, and a deficit on the church side in presenting Church teaching.

The latter can be deduced from the fact that 72 per cent of women surveyed said they rely mainly on the homily at Sunday Mass for learning about the faith, and yet just 15 per cent of that group fully accept the Church’s teaching on sex and reproduction. The weekly Mass homily, the authors say, “seems to represent a lost opportunity when it comes to conscience formation on the contraception issue.”

As for cultural influences, they seem likely (although the authors don’t say so) to account for at least some of the scepticism about natural family planning given the systematic bad press NFP is give by mainstream family planners and the media.

For the pastors of the Church, all this represents a steep challenge. Yet Catholic women may be more receptive to the Church’s view of things than first appears.

Openness of the “soft middle”

Importantly, the survey shows they are more open to children than the average American, their “ideal” number of children averaging 3.5 (or 4 if money were not a factor) compared with the American ideal of two or fewer.

Also, say the study authors, “When presented with an accurate description of the Church’s teachings on family planning many Catholic women show reluctance to completely reject the Church’s teaching.”

Instead, three groups emerge: “the faithful” (who fully accept the teaching — 13 percent of the sample), “the dissenters” (who completely reject it — 37 percent), and the “soft middle” (who accept “parts” of the teaching). In addition, a significant number of women in the “soft middle” (about half of weekly Mass-goers) show openness to learning more about church teaching on contraception and natural family planning.

Good will shown by many women in the “middle” represents an opportunity for the Church, the authors point out — and natural family planning may be a good starting point for communicating the Church’s teaching about procreation. About one in four of those who attend Mass regularly shows an interest in learning more about the method: hearing from other couples about the health and relationship benefits of NFP, what doctors say about it, and scientific evidence about its effectiveness. Such messages may be more persuasive than spiritual or authoritative ones, the authors suggest.

But alongside their message that many Catholic women are “reachable” the authors warn that the task is becoming more complicated. While the survey shows 10 percent of church-going women have had abortions (lower than the national average), 17 percent of younger women have used emergency contraception. This means that the Church has to inform women about the potentially abortifacient nature of EC “as well as arguing more persuasively that contraception itself is wrong.”

The Catholic bishops are fighting the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate — that is, the policy of forcing all employers, including Catholic institutions such as hospitals and schools, to provide full cover for contraceptives, sterilisation and emergency contraception in their health insurance plans — as an attack on the free exercise of religion, which it is.

But in light of the information in “What Catholic Women Think…” the mandate may be a blessing in disguise. By forcing the issue of contraception to the top of the Church’s public agenda it has created an opportunity for the Church to have an internal conversation on the subject — the kind of opportunity that perhaps has not been seen since Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae in 1968.

The study from the Women Faith and Culture project shows that such a discussion is long overdue.


Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan


Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

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  • Mark

    The Apostle Paul equates obedience with faith. A lack of obedience is a lack of faith.

  • Clement_W

    Over the past year, I have been doing a lot of soul searching and in this process, I started at the species that I (allegedly) belong to, i.e. Homo sapiens. The process took me to the point of questioning whether I am worthy of the ‘sapiens’ designation as yet. Perhaps, the answer to Carolyn Moynihan’s question lies in this, not just for women, but specifically ‘Christian’ humanity as a whole.

  • JMC

    “Decades of dissent” are precisely the problem. Too many so-called “catholic” publications tell us to “let our conscience be our guide,” but when those consciences are poorly formed in the first place, errors are bound to be made. Sunday sermons have devolved into mere biblical exegesis – not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it goes no further than telling us what these things meant to the people in Jesus’ day. Sermons no longer go into the moral implications of these same bible passages for modern-day Catholics. It’s no wonder so many women use artificial contraception: They don’t even know it’s wrong!

  • Charlie500

    ” A blessing in disguise” is so true. There has been little or no emphasis on the practice of contraception, and now it is imperative to speak up publicly. Hopefully, it is not too late. The idea of a non-contracepting culture is an absurd idea to many Christians…even madness to those who have been so indoctrinated as to believe this is normal and healthy behavior.
    The Church needs to speak out loudly and clearly on many fronts….marriage, FIDELITY, respect for the inseparable link between marriage, sex and procreation. Men have been conditioned to exploit women for their own physical gradification. They have been conditioned to use women without worrying about the need for love and responsibility connected with sexuality. Women have been the ones ingesting chemicals that are on the FDA list of top carcinogens. They need to understand that they have been dealt a bad card and that they have the power to change it. It is unimaginable that women in this culture have been conditioned to exterminate their own babies and ,at the same time, go to ridiculous extremes to have a baby. Cultural insanity!
    The Church now has the fallout from contraception as cultural evidence to back its testimony that it is a lethal practice, both physically and spiritually.
    Abortion, infidelity, disease, infertility abounds ….and it goes on and on and on. But the Church has to get to the root of the problem. John Paul II left us his greatest legacy, “Theology of the Body.” Contained in that teaching (straight from the word of God) is the remedy to our cultural confusion…the truth about the human person. The meaning of the human person as male and female created in the image of God, the meaning of marriage, the meaning of our sexuality and procreative power must be restored in the light of the revelation of God, that has been revelealed to mankind from the beginning of time. We have lost our divine compass, so we need to recover it and rediscover our human identity that has been distorted in a chaotic, unintelligible culture. It is a matter of life and death both physically and spiritually.

  • Susan

    Why don’t we ask Catholic husbands where they stand on this? Would they be supportive if their wives wanted to go the NFP route or would they groan and roll their eyes toward the ceiling? Or would they be supportive only until THEY had to attend NFP classes? Or would they even be supportive at all? I’m willing to bet that at least some women want to try NFP, but they dread the conversation and potential rejection of the idea by their husbands.

  • Ashley

    Wow! Great, great article! Thank you for speaking the truth in an easy to understand way. We need to be talking about this more and finding those women (and men) among us who go to church with us and are reachable and perhaps open to the church’s teaching. Maybe they just need a little nudge (in a positive way) by showing the beauty of the church’s teaching on contraception. The Church really values women and holds them up high.

  • Charlie500

    Men will have much to answer for to God. The integrity of a the woman’s reproductive capacity is entrusted to the man according to God’s plan of creation, and he will have to make his case before God if he has not treated this procreative gift with the reverence due to it.

  • PrayTheRosaryMomLoves


    Bravo for speaking the truth to those conditioned in the church of ‘nice’ where fraternal correction goes by the wayside. Now if we can just get our priests to preach about sexual sins.

    see: http://www.churchmilitant.tv/daily/?today=2012-08-20

    There are some excellent teachings on sexuality(and marital sexual ethics in particular) at http://www.catholicplanet.com. This is a must read for Catholics. I also recommend the homilies at http://www.audiosancto.org for understanding the depths of the Catholic faith.

    God Bless.

  • What a marvelous article! It is straightforward, intelligent, easily understoon, and factual. The comments, though, are where the “rubber meets the road” in this discussion, I think. For one thing, it is true, I believe, that men who are told by their parish priests that they will have to become involved in this family planning thing, WILL definitely roll their eyes at the ceiling and most likely yawn, as they wait for their wives to lower the boom. Priests are not to be let off the hook, either. They are largely cowards when it comes to speaking the moral and spiritual truth to their parishes about sexuality and a host of sins. Nobody likes to be the “bad guy.” We women are also in for our share of the blame for the way we have swallowed hook, line, and sinker our larger society’s blarney about having a “right” to sex without worrying about the consequences as we rush about our already busy lives.
    The worst contributor of all in this, though, is the liberal media. They have fought so long and so hard to keep the well documented studies showing beyond a shadow of a doubt that the chemicals that make up birth control pills, spermacide, the “morning after” pill, the list goes on and on, are deadly to a woman’s reproductive system, that it looks as though they have nearly won the war! These chemicals are responsible for the difficulty women have getting pregnant when they decide they want to, they cause rampant autism and other birth defects, and “best” of all, they are indeed among the worst of the FDA’s own list of carcinogens! In point of fact, they ARE the reason the madness exists that has created a world wherein women both kill their own children AND use other chemicals (as if we didn’t have enough in our bodies!), surrogates, etc. to have babies! If the truth were ever allowed to get out into the light of day and have a fair hearing, I think we might see our other Christian sisters, and even our sisters of no faith at all, getting on board with those of us who have seen the light, and raising enough hell to scream the house down!
    In conclusion, I am so proud of Cardinal Daley, and our other heroes of the American Church for standing up for what is right that I could burst! FINALLY, we have modern-day apostles who are not afraid of speaking truth to power (as Oprah puts it). Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  • irishjane62

    Sad but true. Another area lacking: why are so few men dedicated to the faith? Stronger male role models within the home who are not afraid to embrace NFP would certainly help the cause.

  • So many times I have sat in my Catholic church to hear a “Catholic lite” sermon that taught me absolutely nothing about the faith or about how to concretely live it out … and let’s not even begin the conversation about speakers who can’t speak without mumbling, etc, etc. I have to say, this is one place ‘the Protestants got it right!’, and it behooves us to PAY ATTENTION.

  • Wayward Son

    A big reason why Catholic women dissent is fears that NFP doesn’t work.

    Perhaps they know sisters, friends or their own mothers who struggled with some form of Church approved family planning. (“NFP…that’s where your little sister came from.”) NFP is often confused with the obsolete and ineffective rhythm method.

    And Catholic NFP promoters have often pushed theology and “openness to life” at the expense of the science. And couples have struggled as a result. But the science needs to be taken seriously because the science supports the faith.

    The Catholic Church recognized that couples may have serious reasons to prevent pregnancy. Humanae Vitae 10. Humanae Vitae 24 calls upon men of science to find an effective method of NFP. And several such methods have been discovered.

    Even secular sources have noticed. The leading secular book on NFP, Taking Charge of Your Fertility, has hundreds of 5-star ratings on Amazon.

    It is time for the Catholic Church to spread the good news about NFP. It is a physically, psychologically, and relationally healthier way of living.

  • I’m really amazed that all of my catholic co-workers use birth control, even the mormons take it. They look at me as if I’m crazy, I never took it and didn’t do anything other but abstinence. When you love each other dearly you can do it. It only increases the love for each other. Riki

  • Annie

    I went through 12 years of Catholic school and have worked at a Catholic high school for twenty years. I don’t know one mother who thinks taking taking birth control pills is wrong. We put our children through Catholic school, which can be very expensive. What if I were to say that people that send their children to public school don’t care enough about the church’s teachings because if they did they would send them to Catholic school where they learn and live much more of their Catholic faith. Do you really think that God cares how you prevent pregnancies if you have children already? Don’t you think he would rather you spend your time and energy helping or adopting children that don’t have a family. This is one of the most trivial arguments of the Church. If birth control is being used so people can run around having sex, that issue is not birth control but something much bigger. If a married couple who has 3-4 children already wants to make their life a little easier by taking birth control pills over the church’s way, I hardly think God is judging them. Life is hard and stressful everyday. We all need to find little harmless things to keep are faith, patience, and sanity. For those of you who say well “she just doesn’t understand”, I have three college degrees and have spoken to numerous Catholic priest about this topic. They are not cowards for not speaking out, they simply realized that there many more important topics to cover; such as, child abuse, drug abuse, homelessness, poverty, mental illness, children shooting up school, the unimaginable things happening to women all over the world at the hands of men, etc. I think many of you need to look at yourselves to see which rules you are breaking and the sins you are committing and I think you will find they are a much bigger deal than how certain people prevent pregnancy. Only God is perfect, the Catholic Church has a long history of making mistakes.

  • Annamarie53

    Wow, defensive much? You have a right to your opinion as I do to mine. I want women to seriously examine, investigate WHAT these pills are doing to your bodies. They are not a harmless way to get around the hard work of parenthood, or being Catholic in a world that does not treasure love that comes with abstinence on the part of both spouses, or the sacrifices that we all make. I, too, put my children through Catholic schools from kindergarten to high school graduation. No, it wasn’t easy. I don’t believe it is as easy as an “either/or” proposition. All the things you mentioned are evils. But surely you have heard the phrase, “Two wrongs don’t make a right?” We ALL need to love our brothers and sisters more, and I don’t mean just siblings.
    I don’t think we are that far apart in our views. The WORST thing we can do is what Satan wants and to split the Church further by going for the jugular with anyone who doesn’t agree with us.
    God bless you, my sister.

  • Annamarie53

    Amen, my brother! You have hit the nail squarely on the head! Thank you for seeing through all the rhetoric and stating the problem so clearly.

  • TC

    Annie, please educate yourself on Catholic teaching about marital love. Your comments here indicate that you are utterly and completely ignorant of the reasons that contraception is illicit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is online and has a wonderful index. You can begin there.

  • Annamarie53

    TC, I agree completely with you! It seems to me that Annie has many more serious issues deal with than she let on here. She appears very defensive and almost hostile to the Church’s teachings. The tip-off is wherein she starts saying what the Church and God REALLY want as if she has a direct hot line to which the rest of us are not privy. I think we should all pray for her.

  • Michelle lavender

    I agree. I tried NFP, it was not effective. When you are already 3 kids in and on welfare and the church says NFP is the right way to go, so you do it very fearful but trusting, then you wind up with number four on welfare. Well, I’d like to know what is more morally correct? Condoms or having a zillion babies I can’t pay for?

  • Michelle lavender

    Fear it doesn’t work, or experience it doesn’t work. NFP gave me baby number four on welfare

  • MNb

    “For a start it was based on a survey restricted to women aged between 15 and 44, so it could say nothing about women between 45 and 100”
    Could anyone tell me how many woman between 45 and 100 need contraception?

  • Gara

    “For a start it was based on a survey restricted to women aged between
    15 and 44, so it could say nothing about women between 45 and 100.”

    Right…because a 60 year old women needs to use birth control to avoid getting pregnant.