Being Catholic was more out of conformity and obedience than it was by choice—and it was never my first choice. My family converted to Catholicism when I was nine, and though I protested (OK, threw a tantrum), I was confirmed, received communion, and went through my adolescent years as a Catholic.
As I continued to grow, it was clear that the Catholic values steadfastly held by my community became present in other parts of my life. Most notably, when it came to sexuality. My schooling made it clear that abstinence was the only choice; we never discussed other options. Condoms, IUDs, or other forms of birth control were not points of discussion in my high school health class. I distinctly remember my sisters sneakily obtaining birth control from Planned Parenthood for fear of our mother’s reaction.
When it came time for me to explore birth control options, however, something surprising happened: I found that I had no qualms, shame, or even an ounce of hesitation. Had my progressive mindset outweighed my Catholic upbringing? Where was the Catholic guilt I had feared for so long? My faith and my decision to have sex—and thus, use birth control—now seemed unrelated.
It turns out, I wasn’t alone. Despite the hard line drawn in our religion textbooks, reiterated by our teachers and the anti-contraception platform associated with Catholicism, 82 percent of American Catholics believe birth control is morally acceptable. What’s more, in a comparison study between 1972 and 2008, the number of Catholics who believed premarital sex was “always wrong” dropped from 39 percent to 14 percent.
Despite these numbers and the reality of today’s societal norms, I was still shocked my beliefs strayed so far from my Catholic faith.
The Official Catholic Church Teaching
In an effort to understand the shift in my thinking and collate these two contrasting set of values, I gave myself a refresher on the Catholic Church’s point of view:
- Sex has one purpose: for a married couple to procreate.
- Birth Control (IUD, the “Pill”) or any method which prevents pregnancy via a mechanical device undermines the “gift of fertility” and should not be used.
- A couple should take a generous view when it comes to children (ever heard of those big Catholic families?).
I know my views differ from those enforced by the Vatican, but it made me wonder: where did the rest of my fellow Catholics stand?
Deviation from Traditional Practice
The world has progressed, a woman’s role has expanded significantly, and the guilt associated with committing this “mortal sin” seems to have subsided. Though no statement has been made announcing an official change, several examples within the church and among the congregation signal a shift in thinking:
- U.S. Bishops released a statement iterating the importance of sex for fostering love and unification in a marriage.
- A 2014 survey from Univision cites that 98 percent of sexually active American Catholic women have used or currently use birth control.
- In 2015, Pope Francis told Catholics to be prudent in having their children, or rather to refrain from breeding “like rabbits.”—Yup, he said that.
As New York Times writer Frank Bruni so eloquently put it, “[Catholics are] well aware of the Vatican’s pronouncements. They just prefer to plug their ears.” Catholics may be largely ignoring this teaching, but the institution itself also looks to be moving progressively, accepting birth control as a part of many Catholics’ reality.
Exploring Other Points of View
How does the Vatican’s harsh view compare to other religions? Catholicism is one of the only lasting stalwarts in the fight against birth control. The other major world religions have varying viewpoints, though none have quite as staunch an opposition to contraception as Catholics:
- Judaism: Policy is broken up by sects (Orthodox, Reform and Liberal). Only the Orthodox sect maintains artificial birth control should not be used.
- Church of England: They officially stated in 1930 the decision to use birth control is a responsibility of potential parents.
- Hinduism: There is no ban on birth control.
- Islam: Like Judaism, the teaching depends on the school of thought. Eight out of nine schools of Islam approve of birth control.
- Buddhism: Approves of birth control if it merely stops conception, but does not condone methods which block implantation (ex: IUD).
My identification with the Catholic church and relationship with God is not threatened by my decision to use birth control or have premarital sex. Just as people of all religious (or nonreligious) backgrounds do, I am constantly questioning myself, where I come from and where I am going. As I continue to develop an informed and independent value system, I’ll use my Catholic background as a guide, not a rulebook. Recognizing what’s best for my body, lifestyle and goals is what drives my decisions, not a nearly 90-year-old decree. In short, this Catholic won’t be stopping her birth control regimen anytime soon.