More on Communication Problems: the Contraception Edition

The more glaring example of the Catholic church’s inability to communicate with the lay public in the West is the overwhelming resistance to the church’s anti-contraception stance. Prior to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which reiterated the church’s traditional views on the subject, there had been a great deal of anticipation among Western Catholics, priests, religious, and lay people alike, that the prohibition on birth control would be overturned. In retrospective, this optimism seems naive, but I can’t blame them, since the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control concluded that birth control was not inherently evil. But Paul VI believed that he couldn’t change this teaching because it hadn’t been changed before (circular reasoning, much?). While a minority of conservotrads and traditionalists have decided that having a baseball team worth of kids is the mark of an “orthodox Catholic,” most Western Catholics ignored Humanae Vitae and much of the church’s other teachings on sexual matters, a situation that has gotten worse with the rise of the LGBT rights movement.

If you go on conservotrad sites like Catholic Answers, Catholic Education, or any of the blogs on Patheos’ Catholic channel, you’ll see birth control and the “contraceptive mentality” denounced in the most strident terms as one of the greatest evils of our time, presumably after abortion and homosexuality (I’ve seen more than a few writers claim that once heterosexual people accepted “contraceptive sex” then it was a slippery slope to accepting abortion and then gay sex as normative things). But despite all of the online venom directed at contraception as one of the Worst Things Ever, the church doesn’t spend much time trying to convince the average pewsitter or the average non-Catholic American of this.

Unless you attend a conservotrad or traditionalist parish, where the priest knows that everyone already agrees with him on the matter, the average Catholic will probably never hear a sermon about contraception. Part of this is because birth control isn’t mentioned in the Bible, which makes it difficult to shoehorn the subject into a sermon when the lectionary never addresses it. I also believe that the priests and the laity are involved in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” agreement, where the latter pretend not to use birth control and the former pretend to be celibate, and direct preaching on contraception would shatter this illusion. But the most obvious reason you don’t hear about birth control in Catholic sermons is probably because most priests and lay people don’t think it’s a sin, outside of a small group of conservotrads and traditionalists.

Although John Paul II stacked the episcopate with bishops who believed in the Humanae Vitae view of birth control, they haven’t been doing things like, say, organizing protests in front of drug stores and supermarkets that sell condoms the way they do with abortion clinics (the bishops also don’t protest in front of IVF clinics, despite their insistence that embryonic life is morally equivalent to that of a toddler). American archdioceses and dioceses don’t spend any real effort to educate their flock about why contraception is forbidden, and the topic generally never comes up, except for a brief mention during RCIA or Pre-Cana classes. I think it’s interesting that Catholic universities don’t host debates about the morality of contraception, but will have debates about the existence of God or other philosophical issues that are completely divorced from real world problems.

The problem with the Catholic church’s stance on contraception is that it’s based on bad Aristotelian pseudo-science and the equally fake “natural law theory” that convinces no one outside of a slim group of people in the Catholic academy and church nerds. Unless you buy into the presuppositions built into Catholic ideas about “natural law,” the church’s stance on contraception makes no sense. If birth control was responsible for all of the ills that conservotrads would have us believe, then it would have been noted in sociological, medical, and psychological research. The opposite is true, as areas and countries where people, especially women, lack access to birth control are poorer, less stable, and less healthy. The fact that the researchers on the Vatican’s own Pontifical Commission on Birth Control didn’t endorse the traditional view on the subject speaks volumes, That this this advice was summarily ignored also says a lot.

If the hierarchy wants people to follow its line on birth control, it would have to distill it into punchy talking points that are easily understandable to a person with a high school diploma or less; once you start bringing up “double effect,” eyes are going to glaze over. Consider the Mormon church, which also “encourages” large families. The Mormons don’t exactly ban birth control, but they do teach that large families are better, because of their belief in the “pre-existence.” According to this teaching, there are a bunch of human souls hanging out in a spirit realm, waiting for good Mormon couples to have babies, so they can have physical bodies. If a couple chooses to limit their family size, then that means that some of their “spirit children” may not get bodies and won’t get to go to the Celestial Kingdom, the highest heaven in Mormon theology. When compared to the convoluted Catholic justification for no birth control, the Mormon teaching is much simpler and easier to comprehend. It also plays on parental guilt by suggesting that couples who desire a small family are being selfish for depriving their “spirit children” of life, not just in this world, but eternal life in the Celestial Kingdom. The rationale for militant fecundity among ultra-Orthodox Jews is even simpler: make lots babies to replace the numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews killed in the Holocaust. That’s why in many ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, large families going into the double digits are a common sight. The Catholic bishops need to take a page from the Mormon and ultra-Orthodox Jewish playbooks and learn to keep it simple stupid.

But it’s doubtful that the Catholic church is going to try to do a hard press to convince its flock to ditch the condoms, pills, IUDs, etc. The flock in question is diminishing, due in large part to the hierarchy’s own malfeasance, and it wouldn’t do to alienate the ones who remain. While some centrist Catholics who use birth control might support the bishop’s claims of faux-persecution about the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate out of a sense of tribal loyalty, the vast majority of Catholics are using contraception and make no apologies for it. In the past, the “Father/Church knows best” attitude could have shamed possible dissenters into following the Vatican line, but those days are long over. Unless the hierarchy can provide a compelling and simple reason why Catholics ought to shun birth control, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” status quo will remain.