In 1968, Pope Paul VI issued the “Humanae Vitae” reaffirming the Catholic Church’s stance on artificial contraception,
“Excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.”
In other words, Catholicism teaches that sexuality is for the sole purpose of creating life. The use of contraceptives, both hormonal (i.e. pill) or barrier (i.e. condom), are not allowed because they prohibit the natural law of procreation. One form of birth control that is encouraged and supported by Catholic Church officials is Natural Family Planning. This refers to fertility awareness, and is based on the fact that a woman is most fertile around the time of ovulation. Through determining her ovulation period, a woman understands what days she needs to abstain from sexual intercourse. Natural Family Planning does not interfere with the biological process of conception; therefore, it is accepted in the Catholic faith.
A recent study done by the Guttmacher institute produced results contradictory to fundamental Catholic beliefs. It reported that 98 percent of American Catholic women admit to having used contraception. Though the Vatican openly professes its view on contraception, Catholic parishioners seem to follow a different set of rules.
In January 2012, the Obama administration issued a mandatethat would require Catholic institutions to provide free contraceptive services to their employees. The U.S. Bishops Committee immediately responded in defense of their beliefs, saying that the proposal violates freedom of religion.
The ongoing debate sparked media interest in Catholicism. Several reporters, including Keith Soko of CNN.com, recalled a similar argument from the 1960’s, which involved Catholic Church officials disagreeing with the pope on his issuing of the “Humanae Vitae”. “The pope formed a committee to evaluate the stand against contraceptives. The result: 75 out of 90 on the committee recommended that the church allow for contraceptives. Even so, Pope Paul VI issued the letter,” Soko said.
Because the Catholic ruling on contraception was unfairly reinstated in the “Humanae Vitae”, several parishioners have disregarded its legitimacy. Supporters of Obama’s proposal also claim that the U.S. Bishops Committee has no right to judge public policy pertaining to birth control, because it is comprised of all male.
Questions pertaining to Catholic doctrine were raised again when research surfaced proving that Catholic officials have little consideration for their parishioners. A poll done by The Public Religion Research Institute, found that 58 percent of Catholics agree with Obama’s proposal (Figure 1).
In today’s world, there is an obvious disconnect between Catholic officials and Catholic parishioners in terms of contraception. Despite criticism, the Vatican continues to follow tradition. The Vatican trusts that consistency has led to their success and they don’t intend on making any changes.
The idea that parishioners are rejecting certain aspects of their Catholic faith comes as no surprise to Catholic Officials. Father Paul Gabriel of Blessed Sacrament Church in Burlington recognizes that some laws are just never accepted. “Contraception is one where people say I know what the church teaches and I know what will work for my family,” said Gabriel.
Father Gerry Waterman of Elon University Catholic Campus ministry agrees with Gabriel. “People have to form their own conscience,” said Waterman. He explained this concept by using an anecdote.
“Sometimes when people see a yellow light, they choose to speed up, even though they no the law states to slow down.” For Waterman, the same concept applies to Catholic parishioners’ decision to use contraception in that they know contraception is wrong, but choose to use it anyway.
Currently, Catholicism is world renown for its strict ideals, but in the past it was not the only religion to ban the use of contraceptives. According to Jennifer Sokol of the Catholic News Agency, the founders of various Protestant Churches also disapproved of contraception. “John Calvin once called it ‘a monstrous thing’ and Martin Luther described it as ‘a sin greater than adultery or incest,’” Sokol said.
Sokol discussed the point of dissension in which people began ignoring the idea of no contraception. “For centuries the vast majority of Catholics lived according to church teaching,” said Sokol. ”But the sexual revolution, fear of over-population and economic collapse, and especially the availability of the newly introduced birth control pill in the 1960s changed everything.”
At this point, many Catholic parishioners began to deconstruct their religion and choose which aspects of Catholic theology were important to them personally. A New York Times article by Laurie Goodstein describes the division that formed within the Catholic Church. “On the one side are traditionalists who believe in upholding Catholic doctrine to the letter, and on the other, modernists who believe the church must respond to changing times and a pluralistic society,” Goodstein said.
Catholic officials encourage tradition; however, they also recognize the value in change. Waterman refers to himself as “progressive.” He insists that change is good if the motivation is God, not popular demand. “The Holy Spirit inspires us to continue to go forward in the church,” said Waterman.
One example of the Catholic Church making advancements while also fulfilling God’s will is Natural Family Planning. It became an accepted form of birth control after the Vatican realized it didn’t inhibit procreation.
Sis Steffen coordinates the Respect Life Committee for Blessed Sacrament. She sponsors pro-life events throughout Alamance County. “Natural Family Planning was discovered in the 70’s,” said Steffen. “It is 99% effective and works with God in his natural way.”
Aside from religious reasons, some couples choose to practice Natural Family Planning because it requires both the man and the woman to take responsibility in preventing pregnancy.
Pope John Paul II was an advocate for Natural Family Planning. In a 1984 address to two international congresses he said, “The use of natural methods gives a couple an openness to life, which is truly a splendid gift of God’s goodness. It also helps them deepen their conjugal communication and draw closer to one another.”
Catholic officials know that Natural Family Planning requires attentiveness and that artificial contraception would be easier, but they maintain that sometimes sacrifices have to be made to respect religious doctrine. “We have to take serious our role as Catholic Christians in a world where society says its ‘have it your way’ all the time,” said Waterman
In the midst of societal pressure, the Catholic Church continues to flourish. The National Council of Churches published the 2011 yearbook that ranked Catholicism as the largest religion in the United States. It also reported that Catholicism was one of the few churches whose membership increased, growing .57 percent.
Waterman thinks that tradition has been the source of their prosperity. “Catholicism offers structure and people want to hold on to something meaningful,” said Waterman.
Gabriel believes tradition is the foundation for all religions, not just Catholicism. “It’s what defines us,” said Gabriel. “If nobody knows what we stand for, than we don’t stand for anything.”