My Take: 'Real Catholics' not opposed to birth control
There has long been a division between Catholic clergy and congregants on contraception.
February 3rd, 2012
02:06 PM ET

My Take: 'Real Catholics' not opposed to birth control

Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

(CNN) - I don’t know yet what I think of the Obama administration’s policy of requiring employers, including Catholic ones, to offer contraceptive services for free as preventive care. But I know this: It is crucial in this dispute to distinguish between the Catholic hierarchy and rank-and-file Catholics.

Catholic bishops have a clear position on contraception. Citing the encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968), they contend that sex has a purpose, and that this purpose is procreation inside marriage. Therefore, any sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong, as is any “unnatural” means of birth control inside marriage. So while the so-called rhythm method is acceptable, condoms and IUDs and the pill are not.

But is this the Catholic position? It depends on what you mean by Catholic.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has strongly condemned the new Department of Health and Human Services rule. “Never before in our U.S. history has the Federal Government forced citizens to directly purchase what violates our beliefs,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, chairman of the group's Committee on Pro-Life Activities. “At issue here ... is the survival of a cornerstone constitutionally protected freedom that ensures respect for conscience and religious liberty.”

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Yet survey after survey has shown that U.S. Catholics neither agree with official church teachings on contraception nor follow them.

According to a 2011 Guttmacher Institute survey, “only 2% of Catholic women rely on natural family planning.” A 2002 survey found that Catholic women in the United States were more likely than American women as a whole to use the birth control pill, and only slightly less likely to use a condom. In a 2000 poll that strikes even closer to the heart of this debate, 90% of American Catholic women surveyed said they wanted to see access to birth control services at community hospitals.

Turning from behaviors to beliefs, it is clear that the majority of U.S. Catholics also disagree with church teachings on contraception. According to a 2005 Harris poll, 90% of U.S. Catholics support the use of birth control.

Is Obama losing the Catholic vote?

Of course, U.S. bishops say that Catholics who think and do these things are bad Catholics. If so, the pool of "good Catholics" would seem to be shrinking to close to zero.

Are the only "real Catholics" in America the priests decrying the new Obama administration policy and the 2% of U.S. Catholic women who rely only on "natural" birth control? Who is to speak for the other 98%?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Barack Obama • Bishops • Catholic Church • Health care • Politics • Polls • Religious liberty • United States

soundoff (467 Responses)
  1. matchlessg80

    Stephen: Would you please give us your definition of "REAL". Should you have used the adjective "UNREAL", "UNTRUE", "SO-CALLED"? People of most religions believe in God, while not necessarily believing or practicing other aspects of their religion. Why do you pick on Catholics? How about a Muslim who misses a call to prayer once a day? I could go on and on, but I do hope you get my point. What does all this have to do about anything?

    February 14, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  2. MarylandBill

    What sort of religion scholar believes that religious truths like morality can be determined by majority rule? I suppose it is possible if, by religion scholar, we don't mean someone who actually studies what a religion teaches but rather we mean someone who studies the people who claim to be part of a religion.

    The teachings of the Church are entrusted to Bishops and Priests; they are changeable by majority vote. Bishops and Priests abandon those truths at peril to their souls, and Catholics lay persons ignore them at equal peril. Now, granted, all of us fall short from time to time (That is what sin is, and why the Church has the sacrament of confession), but it is particularly dangerous to willfully ignore the teachings of the Bishops.

    February 14, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Most catholics use birth control, ignoring their bishops, priests and church. Many priests (and bishops, cardinals and Pope-a-Dope?) abused children. The RCC seems to be making more of a fuss about birth control than about child abuse. Both are sins according to the RCC. Which is worse?

      What about the 300,000+ abortions had each year by catholics in the USA – why does it seem the RCC cares more about birth control than ensuring their cult members don't have abortions?

      February 14, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • MarylandBill

      What, you are not going to bring up the fact that Pope Benedict was in the Hitler Youth? Yes, too many priests have abused children; so have teachers, coaches, parents, etc, and in far greater numbers than priests ever has done. And as Penn State has proven, it is not just the Catholic Church that has tried to cover it up.

      As for abortion, perhaps you miss the fact that the Catholic Church, and many, many Catholics have been protesting abortion for the last 40 years? Or that tens, if not hundreds of thousands show up to march in DC every year on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade? Or that receiving an abortion, performing and abortion or materially assisting in an abortion incurs an automatic excommunication?

      Just because there are a large number of Catholics who ignore Church teaching, that does not mean what the Church teaches is wrong.

      February 14, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Actualy, I cringe when I see people bring up Pope-A-Dope and the Hitler Youth...

      I'm suggesting that the RCC's response to birth control is out of proportion to other behaviours and events, and that the RCC needs to focus on their internal issues more so that what others are doing.

      February 14, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  3. AGuest9

    Actually, most of the Catholic women I know (as well as many of their daughters) are on birth control.

    February 12, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  4. Joliet Jake

    Hey Perfesser Prothero,

    I'm a "real" Catholic.

    What that means is that I believe. I go to Mass. Every week. I participate in several ministries within the Church.

    That, sir, is a "real" Catholic.

    And I am aghast and appaled by the Obamacare rule.

    As you should be, even if you are not Catholic, and even if you don't oppose abortion (and let's be clear, the issue here is more than contraception - one of the "contraceptives" recently approved by Obama's HHS is actually an abortifacient).

    This nation was founded primarily because people fled to observe their religion without the interference of the state.

    Which is why the first - not the fifth, not the tenth, but the first - amendment says that the government must butt out of religion.

    Hey perfesser, you know what the First Amendment really means , right?

    It's not that you can't have Christmas trees in front of town hall.

    It's that you can't force people with certain religious beliefs to drop those beliefs.

    You know what, Perfesser? You can take these positions now, when they're coming for people whose values you clearly oppose. But who is going to be left to rally around you when they come for you?

    February 12, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  5. K2

    The Catholic Church's stance on Birth Control is wrong and they should be ashamed of themselves for saying it is a mortal sin.

    February 11, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Joliet Jake

      Ummm. Do you know what the Church's position on this issue is? Do you know what "the dignity of human life" means? And do you know what a "mortal sin" is?

      February 12, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • bill

      The book of proverbs speaks of obeying Gods Law and Man made laws. The bishops are trying to implement there own ideas not Gods. Durr , there is no mentioned of Contreception in the Bible!!!!! More made up rules like not eating meat on Fridays during lent!!!!

      February 14, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  6. stevenstreets

    "recovering catholic" is no longer a tavern moniker.
    Its a clinical condition backed up by the Millions of Dollars paid out in therapy for victims of the church denied the healing Power of the Holy Spirit by Church lawyers with their cynical legal "gaming". I only remain a Catholic to Honor my ancestors and Birth Father before me who wanted to become catholic, and to see that the thousands of dollars the church lawyers spent on therapy for me is not wasted entirely...Not one officer of the male reproductive dominance theocratic hierarchy ever offered the sacrament of healing because that would require confessing i suffered from the abuse.. their sin remains.

    February 11, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Technokat

      Good luck with the therapy. I hope it's working.

      February 11, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  7. Scott Johnston

    Most of the priests on the front lines in the parishes are more in tune with the laity on this issue. I'd bet the majority of parish priests turn a blind eye to the so-called "doctrine" regarding contraception. It's not dogma and you can't go to hell for not believing in this policy, despite what some bishops and a few priests might say. The bishops should press for a change. Humanae Vitae was a disaster – and wrong. Let's open the debate again and get Rome to revisit the issue with the purpose of developing a change in this policy. The current "teaching" harms the Church and is unnecessary. Pope benedict should draft a nuanced change in this... he's a capable theologian and scholar and can certainly craft s carefully considered change.

    February 10, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  8. Joe E

    Marital relations without contraception is true lovemaking. Is that hard to believe?

    February 10, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Marital relations without contraception is procreation. It's for making more catholics, and having large families, in the church's view. Those, the many followers can support the church, financially. That is a big deal to the vatican.

      February 12, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  9. Joe

    1. It isn't about contraception as much as it's about intrusion into religious liberty.
    2. Some Catholic woman have developed their own secular creed in the 70's: I believe in Feminism and the right to contracept, abort, and burn my bra. And in Gloria Steinham, her beloved daughter, conceived of Margaret Sanger, foundress of infanticide. And through my own will, I will raise my daughter to believe and I will pretend that my Church believes what I do. amen.
    3. Catholic women have free will and according to their own beliefs will answer to God at some point, but the Catholic Church holds fast to, and requires its members to hold fast to, certain tenants and beliefs. Just because some members do not hold fast to Catholic beliefs does not mean the government can mandate a change to what the Church holds dear to its heart.

    February 10, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Technokat

      All of what you say would be true, if not for the fact that the mandate applies to employers, not religious organizations. When religious organizations employ members of the general public, laws pertaining to protecting the public pertain to them. When religious organizations ONLY employ their followers, they can do as they please. The problem here is not liberties–it stems from the blurry lines between public and private.

      February 11, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • AGuest9

      The church needs to treat the laity as contractors, it eliminates this entire problem. Church hospitals are being shut down, which is another step in equality in reproductive services for women. You can't receive a tubal ligation, for example, at a church hospital.

      February 12, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  10. KMB

    Actually, the rift is between those who understand "natural law" and those who do not. Most clergy and religious learn and understand the natural law. Many laity and non-Catholics do not. I say that as a lay Catholic who studied moral law and finds the correct stance to be that of the Church. .

    February 9, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
    • Technokat

      Did the actions of the Catholic Church during the Spanish Inquisition reflect "moral law?" Just curious...

      February 11, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  11. jtrjr

    This article seems to use the terms Rhythm Method and Natural Family Planning interchangeably. Natural Family Planning is not the Rhythm Method. The Rhythm Method does not work, whereas NFP does. For more information: http://nfpandmore.org/

    February 9, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  12. Fernando

    I was probably said before here, however: The phrase "it depends what you mean by Catholic" is silly at best, wicked coming from a supposed "religion scholar". The one and only Church founded by Christ, with an unbroken succession line for 2000 years has stated very clearly what her beliefs are. You are either in or out, your choice. Its not easy but trying sure counts.
    No government should require any employer to offer services to its employees that violate its conscience. You want those services, go work elsewhere.

    February 9, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • DB

      This argument of course is based on the fundamental assumption that the Church's conscience is pure and superior to the rest of the society and other religions. Oh wait, the church doesn't recognize other religions, so that which doesn't exist, doesn't matter.

      February 10, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • Technokat

      I'm still trying to find the doctrine of child molestation in the teachings of Christ...I know it's in here somewhere...thought I just saw it...oh, wait...false alarm...I'll keep looking...

      February 11, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Jon

      Fernando, the teaching on contraception is not a dogma. Doctrines which have not been declared a dogma can and in the past have been changed. The Church accepts theological pluralism, as long as dogmas are held in common - that is the purpose of dogmas. The prohibition against contraception is not a dogma. Therefore you can disagree with it and still be a Catholic.

      February 11, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  13. Sara

    Besides....the mandate is requiring that free birth control is offered. They're not systematically pulling women into their offices and injecting them with hormone as they helplessly wail their protests.

    If it's against the Church Mandate, and you subscribe to such rulings, then you will simply be one who does not take advantage of the service.

    February 8, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
    • Technokat

      Yes, well, one knows that if it's offered, THE WICKED SHALL BRING IT UNTO THEMSELVES!!! (I couldn't help it...this whole issue is such a farce...)

      February 11, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  14. Sarah

    The plan offers birth control at no cost, if you want to use it. It's not shoving a pill down your throat everyday, if you don't believe in using an unnatural form of birth control then don't take it!

    February 8, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • Anthony Zarrella

      Here's the problem – your view would work if the law said "Employers may not contractually prohibit employees from purchasing contraception." However, in the actual case, health insurance doesn't work that way. The employer contributes *money* to employee health plans, meaning the employer is being forced to *pay* for contraception that they believe is wrong. Also, people who are forced to buy into these health plans (because the law forces them to have health care, and their employers can no longer offer them "contraception-free" options) may not be forced to use contraception, but their premiums are pooled with everyone else's, so they too are being forced to pay for contraception they don't believe in.

      This isn't about "allowing" women to use contraception – it's about forcing Catholic organizations to *buy* a product that is morally repugnant to them.

      February 9, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • elsie

      I can't reply directly to Anthony, so I'm putting my reply to him here:

      By your logic, Anthony, Catholic employers already pay for contraception for others. The premiums they pay go to companies that pay for birth control for women under other plans offered by other employers. The insurance companies are massive and all the money flows to the center.

      The only way to avoid paying for birth control for anybody is to not offer anyone any health coverage at all. Which is what I expect the Church will eventually do. Once again, spectacularly missing the point: 'preserving life' by wholesale denying people access to medical care.

      February 10, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Technokat

      elsie, why should the Catholic church care about preserving life in any form? I take the pill for a condition called dysmenorrhea–I would not be able to afford it if my insurance didn't cover at least a percentage. Therefore, I would be in pain for 2 days in a stretch unable to work and completely bed-ridden. Contraceptives are often used as treatment, but far be it for the Catholic Church to know anything about science and medicine...oh except for that "Catholic Doctor" who likes to post here. I had no idea there was such a thing. Is there an actual program called Catholic Medicine in medical schools? I heard of declaring an area of medicine for your practice, but in which part of the body are the Catholic Doctors experts–the soul? Can the soul be x-rayed or do you need an MRI to see it? Is Catholic Medicine a branch of proctology? I have so many questions!

      February 11, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  15. mlmthink

    Stephen has given me a real education on the faithfulness of Catholic women to the doctrin of their chosen church, but I fail to see its relationship to Obama's mandate. The problem that all Americans should have with Obama's mandate is that it forces a person to violate their moral beliefs. Religious liberty is an integral part of the very founding of this nation and for a president to violate the liberty of even one American is abhorrent.

    February 7, 2012 at 11:04 pm |
    • Lamar

      Agree 100% .. It was late and Stephen wasn't thinking straight when he wrote the piece. Forgive the silly chap.....

      February 8, 2012 at 2:08 am |
    • Carl

      For me, this is the real issue. The federal government is forcing the church to violate its beliefs, and its established policy. I, and I think most catholics, don't feel that there is anything wrong with birth control. That is not the point here. The point is that the federal government needs to respect the church operating within its faith.

      February 8, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  16. Joel

    BFC, while that may be fine and dandy, you don't HAVE to have a car. Obama is forcing us to buy health insurance just for being a citizen of the United States. You don't have to buy a car, you don't have to have car insurance.

    February 7, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • Vance

      you don't have to have car insurance? Since when? And your body is your car...So insure the damn thing so that the rest of us don't have to pay for it when you wreck the damn thing.

      As to the mandate..I wonder how many people even understand it. Read it. It's not the evil monster some would like you to believe.

      February 7, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • Lamar

      @Vance, you miss the point. Buy all the insurance you want to protect your body, its just that Tax payers shouldn't be funding it (the current bill does that) and as a citizen, nobody should have a right, not even the government, have the right to force me to buy something. If that's the kind of life you want, there's Cuba, China, Iran – take your pick.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:06 am |
  17. Rick in Denver

    I'm sure there are Catholics who cheat on their spouse as well, so should the Church just accept adultery as a viable "lifestyle choice," Stephen? Same goes for lying, cheating and stealing, I suppose. If Catholics are guilty of it, the Church should accept it, says His Majesty, Stephen Prothero.

    I've never read an article that screams more loudly about the disconnect between its author and the purpose and mission of the Catholic Church. Just laughable...

    February 7, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Jo

      I happen to remember a big concept of Christianity is forgiveness. Yes, the church should accept that there will be those who will knowingly choose to break certain rules, but no religion can ever be complete without repentance and mercy. Sins do not mark a man for life, but only for as long as he is willing to stand with them.

      February 7, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • Lamar

      @Jo – Because forgiveness is such a big part of Catholicism, the Catholic Church offers confession as a sacrament for forgivements – there are only 7 sacraments that the Church bestows (the rest being Baptism, Marriage, etc).

      Jo – I think you have some reading up to do on the Catholic faith.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:02 am |
  18. Brixley Ganinska

    The Catholic Church is not a democracy, period, as the Pope has often said.

    If you do not follow Church Doctrine and do not intend to repent and do so, you are not a "real Catholic" – find another church.

    February 7, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • sparknut

      Yes, indeed, find another church where people are allowed to think!

      February 9, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  19. Phillip Campbell

    The Pope and the Bishops teach the Catholic Faith and those who adhere to those teachings are the real Catholics. Those who "protest" these teachings, including the teachings on contraception are "Protest"ants. If a person rejects the Catholic Church's position they are quite free in America to go found their own Church. What holds someone to the Catholic Church if they reject the Church's teachings? Why not just leave if the timeless teachings of the Church mean nothing. On this particular subject EVERY Christian Church prior to 1930's Lambeth conference held that if someone used artificial contraception, even within the confines of marriage, they were not saved. It was regarded as a serious sin in ALL Christian faiths prior to that time. The Catholic Church is the only one I know of that stood their ground on this issue. Obama has NO moral convictions and cannot comprehend the concept. I think he will be dramatically surprised when Cathoic hospitals and orphanages and schools begin closing under his watch because they stick to their convistions and refuse to fund the activities of the reprobate.

    February 7, 2012 at 2:34 am |
    • GodPot

      "the timeless teachings of the Church" How does that work? I'm pretty sure the study I have done shows not only a date of origin for the founding of the religion (though not by Christians but by converted ex-pagan Romans) as well as showing how the Church has changed it's position on scripture almost as often as they changed Popes. Funny little humans, bickering over who's completely invented dogma is less invented. It's like hearing two boy's arguing over who's brother could beat the others brother up in a fight and finding out that neither have any siblings...

      February 7, 2012 at 2:50 am |
    • MarylandBill

      How could converted ex-pagans have created the "religion"? Are you suggesting that they converted from paganism to some third faith and then created Christianity? No, I think you are probably referring to Constantine the Great, who held the first General Council that established which type Christianity would become dominant. That being said, the basic ideas that make up Catholicism and mainline Christianity can all be found in Paul and the writings of the Early Church Fathers (some of whom were ex-pagans, but just because their thinking influenced the Church does not mean they created it).

      February 14, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  20. Rob

    This whole healthcare bill is about forcing all of us to buy healthcare insurance. What will happen if we do not? Perhaps the smoking police will be out in full force. What will Obama force on us next, then next and then...... You people in truth or jokingly just don't get the picture here.

    February 6, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • J.W

      I don't see how everyone being forced to have health insurance is different than everyone being forced to have car insurance.

      February 6, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian


      Car insurance (at a minimum level) is to financially protect others from your vehicular carelessness. A legal requirement for third party car insurance is an imperative. However, health insurance is a personal choice, and should not be compulsory.

      February 6, 2012 at 11:04 pm |
    • BFC

      Rational Libertarian

      Health insurance serves the same purpose. It prevents paying consumers from having to foot the bill for your uninsured care when you show up at the emergency room with no way to pay. The hospital doesn't absorb the cost of the uninsured, they pass it on to the consumers. Just like with car insurance, those who pay for health insurance have to foot the bills for those who choose not too.

      February 7, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
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