It’s an elusive figure, one hoped for in absolutes. Politicians desperately want to win 98 percent of their electorate’s votes; doctors hope to diagnose with 98 percent accuracy; church leaders pray to get 98 percent of the public through their doors.
But they don’t usually get that 98 percent. Politicians settle for anything more than half, and doctors go through round after round of treatments until they find the one that works. Even Christ himself couldn’t make followers out of 98 percent of his contemporaries.
And yet when it comes to American Catholic women and sexual experience, 98 percent have used birth control at some point in their child-bearing years, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which is a non-profit organization that promotes reproductive health and had started as an arm of Planned Parenthood. The accuracy of the statistic is debated; nevertheless, the percent potentially represents millions of women directly disobeying the teachings of their Church.
So how do American Catholics, especially those still in their child-bearing years, reconcile their use of contraceptives with their religion?
How will the possible ramifications of Obama’s healthcare battle with the Catholic Church affect them? How do young Catholics who have never known anything but contraceptive availability reckon their modern views with those developed by elderly celibate men decades ago?
Simply put: Many just don’t buy it.
“I don’t agree with everything the Catholic Church says,” said Lisa Capaccio, a 21-year-old junior at Quinnipiac University. “In my opinion, people should use birth control if they’re having sex to prevent pregnancy …. People can do what they want, but personally I think I’d rather just be on birth control (as a preventative measure).”
Diane Bizzarro, a nominally Catholic 22-year-old senior at Ohio Wesleyan University, says the Church must change as society does.
“I think that the Catholic Church needs to adapt to the 21st century and recognize that sex education is necessary in order for youth to be safely in control of their decisions and their bodies,” she said.
But strict Catholics like Matt Palmer argue that the lives of members of the Catholic laity are not their own, and their decisions should advance God’s plan for their lives.
“The Christian life is about a relationship in which we have a loving Father and his son Christ and the Holy Spirit who come into our lives … to give us the fullest life possible,” Palmer said. “A life of great dignity, a life of great freedom, freedom to be all that God made us to be … but not free to do anything. Free to live the life that God made us to live.”
Palmer, who serves on the board of The Catholic Foundation in Columbus in addition to his work as president of The Joseph Group Capital Management, said this notion of giving one’s life to God is where the contraception dilemma begins.
“I think that’s where young Catholic couples start to be challenged. The moral dilemma begins when one starts to open that door of ‘what I want’ versus ‘what God wants and has created for me.’”
OF AN AGE-OLD INSTITUTION
Sparked in part by the recent debate over who will pay for reproductive medical services in the Obama healthcare plan, younger generations of Catholics are calling for the modernization of the Church.
Capaccio, the Quinnipiac junior, said the Church should make a change in its doctrine.
“I think that the Catholic Church needs to reassess and become a bit more modern in perspective,” she said.
“The Catholic Church seems really out of touch, because literally every Catholic I know from my generation uses birth control,” says Courtney Durham, a 22-year-old college senior who attended Catholic middle school. “I see (the Catholic Church’s stance) as being too rigid for modern times.”
And in these more “modern times,” social stigmas about contraceptives have lessened.
“I’m comfortable with my friends and family knowing I’m on birth control because I think it makes me responsible, not blasphemous,” Durham says.
Capaccio’s parents, who are both nominally Catholic, also know about her use of birth control.
“They support it because they do not want any children running around,” Capaccio said.
Her statement alludes to contraception’s role in allowing women to choose when and how many children they will have.
Palmer, though, says he questions whether contraceptives have actually helped women.
“It seems like there’s a lot of slavery,” he said. “Women have become almost enslaved to other notions of freedom that may not be as life-giving and freeing as we thought.”
Palmer points to Pope Paul VI’s “Humanae Vitae,” in which the pope discussed his beliefs on the eventual outcome of a contraceptive culture.
“Pope Paul VI spoke very prophetically about what would happen if contraceptives became an accepted part of modern life,” Palmer said. “They certainly have, and all those (outcomes)—the objectification of women, separating the marital act from the responsibility of it—all of that has happened and stayed. What do we have now that is so wonderful in a contraceptive age?”
But do leaders have a responsibility to educate youth about the realities of sexuality and birth control in today’s “contraceptive age”?
Palmer said he blames the availability of contraception for the “explosion” of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), unwanted pregnancies and abortions in the last 50 years. In the midst of such an explosion, the Catholic Church offers only abstinence as a measure for avoiding STDs and unwanted pregnancies.
“During my entire five years at Catholic school, there was only one occasion that we had a ‘sex-ed’ class,” Durham says.
“The girls and the boys were separated and the entire talk took about 15 minutes. I wish I were kidding, but the only thing I took from it was my principal telling me that my body ‘was a temple and your temple door is only opened after you’re married.’”
Other young Catholics had similar experiences.
Christina Sanchez is a 22-year-old college senior at the University of Dayton, a Catholic college. She says growing up in the Catholic Church, contraceptives were not addressed.
“I would say birth control was never represented in a positive light,” she said. “It was frowned upon in the sense that, if you are doing it, don’t tell anyone …, but you shouldn’t be doing it.”
IN THE POLITICAL SPHERE
Palmer said many Catholics are being forced to take a political stance on a matter that should stay in the religious realm.
“It’s really very much a spiritual and faith issue,” Palmer says. “(But) I understand why it comes into the political arena. I mean, when the government asks the Church to provide health insurance, to cover health insurance for its employees, to provide both abortion services and contraception services and to pay for them, the Church is going to say what it said: we won’t be doing that. We don’t believe in it, we can’t do it, we won’t do it. It’s a violation of our conscience.”
But some would argue that nearly every ethical decision will violate the moral conscience of one group or another. Ohio Wesleyan University Chaplain Jon Powers was born in Michigan, a state which, since its inception, has not allowed capital punishment; that view was aligned with Powers’ own beliefs against the practice.
When Powers was offered a job at Ohio Wesleyan, he was faced with a weighty decision.
“One of my moral dilemmas in moving to Ohio Wesleyan was, I’m moving to a state where I’m going to have to pay taxes to execute people,” Powers said. “And every time there’s an execution, I deal with that.
“But I know that I can’t go to the public well and say ‘You’re violating my religious conscience!’ As a state, you are violating my religious conscience, but I know darned well you’re not going to do anything about that.”
Powers said institutions other than the Catholic Church face dilemmas in terms of funding services that they find morally reprehensible.
“Why should they, and perhaps equally why should I and my Methodist Church-related institutions—universities, hospitals—which are grounded in the long-standing Methodist social stances against war and capital punishment, have to provide funding (i.e. state and federal taxes) for military services and for state execution services that my church has long been against?…This is a complex and sensitive issue that I think invites other dimensions,” Powers said.
Powers’ statement alludes to the complexities of an issue like that which Obama and Catholic leaders face.
Issues like these are often deeply rooted not only in the divide between church and state but also in gender and class divides.
“People are up in arms with insurance companies paying for birth control, but when Viagra was first invented and released in the market, insurance companies fell over themselves making sure it was covered by insurance,” Powers said.
“We made sure that Viagra was covered, but not birth control. So there are gender nuances here, all over the place.”
Powers said that while part of the debate is a legitimate church-state issue, the situation is not black-and-white.
He points to political candidates who are involved in the debate and to what extent their views have been changed to win votes:
“Nobody in the public debate, in my read, is pure. Nobody has an absolute pristine argument. We have all made our compromises and live with them.”
THE NEXT STEPS
Powers said the interconnected nature of the situation makes it complex.
“When I was a kid, I’d have a sweater that had a piece that hung out. My mother always said ‘Don’t pull it. When you pull it you unravel the whole thing.’ So I’d pull it, and I’d unravel the whole thing,” Powers said. “This issue of contraception in the United States health care law is really a thread ….
“I tell the bishops, I tell Obama: be careful what you pull, because you’re going to unravel all these other issues. It’s all interrelated, it’s woven together.”
The political issues may block some women’s access to birth control, but regardless of whether they have access to it or not, Catholic women still must reconcile the rules of their Church with their own beliefs about contraception and their view of what God’s plan is for them personally.
“I think that like with anything that you may question in your faith, there is always a good reason as to why you’re questioning it,” Sanchez says.
“It’s not about being spoon fed, and it’s not about following everyone else’s path. It’s about finding your own path and walking with God, and that could entail you making some pit stops and detours. And that’s alright as long as you’re doing things with the intent of living your life as a child of God.
“If that means that to be the best Catholic I can be, I continue my education and make sure that I’m not derailed by something that could be prevented, then so be it.”