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Francis effects.

Did you hear? The anniversary of Pope Francis's election is upon us. So here comes everybody to tell you what that means. Our own Paul Baumann weighs in at Slate, arguing that fixating on the pope is bad for the church. You've got Drew Christiansen, SJ, at America, explaining how Francis means business. There's that Pew Research poll that got lots of people wondering whether Francis was actually having much effect on Joe and Jane Catholic. I suggested that, at this stage of his papacy, Mass attendance was not a great measure of his effectiveness. Daniel Burke at CNN interviewed a bunch of Boston-area Catholics who say Francis has made a big difference in their lives (spoiler alert: Jesuits love the guy). And over at Religion Dispatches, Patricia Miller responds to the Pew poll with what amounts to an extended raspberry. Let's focus on that one for a moment.

Miller's analysis fails in several ways, some of which I was cataloguing when I noticed that she had returned with another magisterial wave of her hand, this time lumping me in with "apologists" for that Pew poll.

But first things first. Does she have the foggiest clue how the Catholic Church works? How Catholics actually think about being Catholic? And can she read polling data?

Catholics view the kinder, gentler reign of Pope Francis more favorability than that of his grouchy predecessor Benedict, but not by much. Francis’ net favorability rating is only six points higher than Benedict’s, which attests not so much to Benedict’s popularity as to the fact that Catholics really don’t pay all that much attention to what the pope does or says. He’s more like a mascot than a leader. 

Leaving aside the attitudinal flourishes (and they are legion), she mischaracterizes the Pew results. Benedict's most recent net favorability rating was 74. Francis's is 85. Maybe she meant to compare them at their highest ratings, but the difference there is just two points.

Miller continues:

Only a quarter of Catholics say they’ve become more excited about their faith and they aren’t going to church any more often. The number who go weekly—a core Catholic obligation—is still well under 50 percent and hasn’t budged. Most importantly, they aren’t being joined by an onslaught of returning Catholics.

Yet the obligingly favorable coverage of Francis continues.

The nerve. She gets those data right, but fails to mention that 68 percent of respondents said Francis was a major change for the better (71 percent consider him a major change). And I have already explained why no one should have expected Mass attendance to sharply rise within months of Francis's election. It's been a year. That's not a long time for one man--even a supremely cuddly mascot, as Miller dubs Francis--to reverse decades of sliding Mass attendance (although it's been steady more recently). Not that anyone should expect Miller to be moved by that particular data set. No, she dings Thomas Reese, SJ, for pointing out what any serious observer of U.S. Catholicism knows: “Since church attendance has been declining since the 1950s, the fact that it did not go down can be considered a victory,” Reese said.

In her most recent post, Miller seems perplexed by my claim that I know few church-watchers who anticipated Francis to bring throngs of Catholics--new and old--to church, because she read somewhere that the pope was supposed to do just that. Evidently when she wants to score rhetorical points, she stops thinking of the pope as a mascot and starts imagining him as a magician. Did some journalists overinterpret--at least in the short term--the excitement generated by the new pope? Does that mean we should use their hyperventilations as the measure of his success one year from his election? No, calmer observers understand that a transformed image of the papacy "does not in itself attract people back to the church, but it does remove a gigantic obstacle to their return."

Miller also wants you to know that the pope is not about to change Catholic teaching on her favorite issues.

If the Pew poll is to be believed, Catholics expect Francis to do more than put a happy face on moldy teachings. A majority expect him to okay birth control and married priests sometime soon, but I hope they’re not holding their breath.

Really? Because, judging from the overall tone of her commentary, I'm not quite convinced that she's not pulling for a lot of Catholics to hold their breath. For a long time. Maybe till they pass out.

But that's neither here nor there. Is it true that this silly majority of Catholics "expect" the pope to allow married priests and the use of artificial contraception "sometime soon"? Nope. Pew Research asked Catholics whether they expected the church to allow birth control and married priests, and just over half said they did--by the year 2050.

Below her misreading of the Pew data, there's a deeper confusion about the way Catholics negotiate doctrine they disagree with. Miller notes Pope Francis's most recent interview, in which he said the following about Humanae Vitae: “The question is not that of changing the doctrine, but to go deep and to ensure that pastoral care takes into account situations and what is possible for people.” But, Miller, responds, "this type of pastoral attenuation is exactly what progressives suggested to no avail when the encyclical was released." Pastoral attenuation. Intriguing formulation, but probably not how some Catholic leaders considered their advice to confessors to "show sympathetic understanding and reverence for the sincere good faith of those who fail in their effort to accept some point of the encyclical."

Perhaps this would be a good time to mention that Miller is also stumped by the difference between dogma and doctrine: "But if the numbers are to be believed, most wavering and lapsed Catholics won’t cross the threshold without substantial changes to church dogma, not just a soft peddling of its contents," she asserts in her latest post. I didn't realize millions of lapsed Catholics were holding out for the return of monophysitism.

"It’s living with this cognitive dissonance between what Catholics actually do—like using birth control and getting divorced...also known as 'life,'" Miller concludes, "and what the church says they can do, that’s driven Catholics from the pews and created a huge shadow church of departed Catholics." No doubt lots of Catholics have left the church, or at least stopped showing up at church, because they disagreed with its teachings on birth control and divorce. But many more stay, despite their disagreement with any number of church teachings and practices.

Did Miller miss Univision's recent poll of twelve thousand Catholics in twelve countries across five continents (or really any recent poll of U.S. Catholics)? On contraception, clerical celibacy--even abortion--most American Catholics are out of step with their bishops. Yet they continue to consider themselves Catholic. They even go to Mass. I bet they drop some cash in the collection basket too. This seems to bother Miller. Perhaps she'd prefer them to join that "zombie church" she keeps bringing up. (As opposed to the other "damaged" church," as she puts it now.) But it hasn't happened yet. It probably won't for quite some time.

I hope she isn't holding her breath.



Commenting Guidelines

Barbara, I'm only describing what I've observed in my relatively brief and unsuccessful life as a Catholic convert. And that is that when I was in my 40s and a recent convert, most of the Catholic women I knew still struggled with teaching on artificial contraception even though most of them used it. A lifelong friend who was a Cradle Catholic, worried on her deathbed that she would go to hell for buying her 16-year-old daughter a "morning after" pill. Her daughter said she would have an abortion if she were pregnant, and her mother wanted to avoid that. What could I say but that "God understands you were dealing with a hysterical teenager, and I don't think he's going to turn out to  be the bastard as the Church says he is." 

Some days I believe that. Other days I feel I must admit the possibility that all the teachings of the Church are all true and binding, that I'm doomed, and all that going to Mass but not receiving could have been spent reading more books and petting the cats.

If you want to know why and how the theology of sex got so scewed up and confused, here is Augustine wondering why we can control everything else except our sexual drive:


"For it certainly was not just that obedience should be rendered by his servant, that is, his body, to him, who had not obeyed his own Lord. Well, then, how significant is the fact that the eyes, and lips, and tongue, and hands, and feet, and the bending of back, and neck, and sides, are all placed within our power--to be applied to such operations as are suitable to them, when we have a body free from impediments and in a sound state of health; but when it must come to man's great function of the procreation of children the members which were expressly created for this purpose will not obey the direction of the will, but lust has to be waited for to set these members in motion, as if it had legal right over them, and sometimes it refuses to act when the mind wills, while often it acts against its will! Must not this bring the blush of shame over the freedom of the human will, that by its contempt of God, its own Commander, it has lost all proper command for itself over its own members? Now, wherein could be found a more fitting demonstration of the just depravation of human nature by reason of its disobedience, than in the disobedience of those parts whence nature herself derives subsistence by succession? For it is by an especial propriety that those parts of the body are designated as natural. This, then, was the reason why the first human pair, on experiencing in the flesh that motion which was indecent because disobedient, and on feeling the shame of their nakedness, covered these offending members with fig-leaves;  in order that, at the very least, by the will of the ashamed offenders, a veil might be thrown over that which was put into motion without the will of those who wished it: and since shame arose from what indecently pleased, decency might be attained by concealment.". 




Augustine, Saint (2011-08-03). The Complete Works of Saint Augustine:  (Kindle Locations 159184-159191).  . Kindle Edition. 

I don't expect Pope Francis and his fellow bishops or their successors in the foreseeable future to renounce Humanae vitae and withdraw their teaching on contraception. That is not how things typically change in the Church. Ordinary men and women are encouraged to admit the error of their ways and are often admired when they do so. But how can a Church that has claimed divine sanction for a doctrine that has inconvenienced millions of its own followers and injured many of them now say, "Oh, sorry. We were wrong about that"? It would call the whole magisterial structure into question and probably bring it crashing down.

What I expect instead is another episode of doctrinal prestidigitation, which has indeed already begun. Talk of pastoral mercy and "sympathetic understanding...of those who accept some point of the encyclical" is a clever and time-tested way to blame the frailness of the teaching on the frailty of those who are supposed to be bound by it. The sheep cannot endure too much truth. After a suitable interval, and once we are well past the Fortnight for Freedom frenzy, the whole embarrassment of contraception will gradually disappear from the pronouncements of bishops, still undoubted truth, of course, but laid quietly to rest in the catacomb of unregarded doctrines. Now you see it, now you don't.

I hope I am not being merely cynical. I actually have some sympathy for these Church leaders. They are entangled in snares laid long before they were born, and nothing they can do is without cost. It would be honest and somewhere between courageous and reckless to acknowledge that yesterday's infallibilities often get smacked by today's realities, and that they themselves may occasionally misread the guidance they receive. But they too are mortal men.


Yes, already the talk of "mercy" in the area of contraception has begun ... ... but  those who have used contraception don't need mercy because they have not done anything wrong.  For me,  one of the greatest moral bankruptsies of the church is the refusal to admit it's fallible and has made mistakes.

Crystal, if you look at the Lambeth ruling, the Anglicans in no way admitted any mistakes or that they were wrong to ban artificial contraception at previous conferences. They also reiterated their line on marriage, procreation, and chastity in and out of marriage, urging couples to consider total abstinence as the best way to prevent pregnancy. 

The Church isn't going to apologize or "admit mistakes" in its teaching about birth control. It won't happen. Any change on the issue of contraception would be couched as a "refinement" or "clarification" of current teaching, without veering from the Church's ideal of sexual continence, NFP, openness to life and abortion as a mortal sin.


Jean, yes, I don't expect them to admit being mistaken, it just would be a nice change. If the relationship between the church and its flock was like a relationship between two people, that relationship would be seriously damaged by the continual lack of humility and honesty and respect on the part of the church in its dealings with lay people. 

There's an article about what happened at the Commission on Birth Control  ... .... that has this exchange ...

Bishop [Carlo] Colombo, alarmed by what seemed Gracias's defection from the conservative camp, interrupted the cardinal. If the Church backtracks on contraception, he warned his colleagues, they "would endanger the very indefectability of the Church, the teacher of truth in these things" which pertain to pertain to salvation. Wouldn't this mean the gates of hell had in some way prevailed against the Church?"

[Spanish Jesuit Father Marcelino] Zalba could not agree more. "What then," he asked, "with the millions we have sent to hell if these norms were not valid?"

Patty Crowley [a married Catholic from Chicago] could not restrain herself. "Father Zalba," she interjected, "do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?"

A momentary stunned silence followed, then some chuckles at this intrusion of common sense in these austere deliberations. Patty seized the moment and spoke further.

Sorry - that should all be in italics.

Anne C. said it right @ March 14, 2014 - 9:46pm.

Mark Twain once said:  it is easier to stay out than to get out.

And I read somewhere (didn't bother to save the source, much to my current dismay) that those who have no vote, vote with their feet.


Yes, Bill M:  Anne C is obviously Catholic.  Episcopalians most certainly view themselves as being Catholic albeit not Roman Catholic.

As someone recently said:  Who am I to judge?

""To me, it leads to a state of ongoing dishonesty and living a sort of lie/  I understand such people to be exercising their conscience, but by doing so in silence they give far more power to those who maintain the official doctrinal orthodoxy."


There is no dishonesty since practically every Mass attendee practices contraception and all know that.Including the hierarchy. The dishonsty is with the clergy. Not the people.  Secondly, where are people going to go? To a church where they do not know anybody. Why should people give up their church when the leaders  screw up. Why deprive themselves of spiritual nourishment. The alternative seem much worse. 

 Bill D - that Millenial Journal piece is a *great* article!

I expect the bishops' point of view re: the widespread use of contraception within marriage, is that sinful behavior is widespread these days.  By their lights, pleas to declare contraception within marriage no longer sinful are pleas to make what is sinful no longer be sinful.  I don't think bishops believe they have the authority to make a thing that is a sin, not a sin.  I don't think morality via public opinion surveys is destined to succeed in the Catholic Church.  

Francis may be more interested in determining how to proclaim the Good News in a culture in which contraceptives are widely used by married couples.  

Just my reading of the tea leaves.





Jim: in the bishops' point of view, why are they unable to teach 99% of the people that contraception is sinful? Have they all suddenly become totally incompetent teachers, unable to communicate? Or have Catholics suddenly become totally deaf, unable to hear what they say? What happened, that they have suddenly become separated from the faithful by a wall of incomprehension?

No, Jim. They have become victims of their own dogma trap. Nobody believes in infallibility anyomore. They may as well drop that too. Because that is what stops them. They know contraception is not a sin. They cannot fit it with their illusions of grandeur. 

Jim P, you apparently accept church teaching that using modern contraception is sinful. Jean knows women who apparently worried that it is sinful, which actually surprises me. I had my children in the 70s and 80s also, and I literally did not know one woman of my Catholic friends who thought using modern birth control was sinful.  I did have one friend from college days who tried NFP. She and her husband felt it was incredibly stressful, demanded an unnatural cycle of lovemaking, and was damaging their relationship, so they gave it up. They have been married for 42 years now.  Few married couples themselves believe that it is sinful - because it's not. It can be misused for sinful purposes (infidelity etc), but it is no more sinful than is food or alcohol or prescription medicine.  All of those can be abused in a sinful way, but eating, drinking, and using prescription medicine is not "intrinsically evil". Nor is using modern contraceptive methods.

The bishops who were the vast majority on the Birth Control Commission apparently did not believe that all use of all modern contraception was sinful.  But they were over-ruled by the conservatives in the Curia who convinced Paul VI that any change would show that "infallibility" is a myth. Besides, Paul VI made it clear that HV is not an "infallible" teaching.  Now there is a conservative cohort of bishops who were appointed primarily because they mirrored John Paul II/Benedict's own beliefs. But that does not mean their beliefs are any "righter" than were the beliefs of the bishops on the Birth Control Commission.

Bill, there is dishonesty involved in the church's attitude towards contraception. It may look the other way in a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, knowing that  90%+ of western Catholics use modern contraception, but they are trying to impose Catholic teaching on anyone who happens to work for a Catholic organization that is not limited to serving or employing only Catholics, or even an individual Catholic.  They are using the money of the people in the pews to pay for this campaign.

Where are people going to go?  That is almost a triumphalist view.  There are many places Catholics can go where they can worship and be part of a christian community that aren't Catholic. 

BTW, Jim M is right that Episcopalians (the Anglican communion as a whole) are "catholic".  They don't accept Rome's definitions any more than Rome accepts theirs.  However, I have never formally joined the ECUSA (Episcopal Church of the United States of America - our branch of the Anglican communion).  The Episcopalians don't deny communion to those who are not 'officially" Episcopalian. 

Claire, how fortunate that your bishop (or one of his staff) at least gives you the courtesy of responding to your letters.  That's unusual, but it at least shows that somebody read it, and may have noted the sentiments expressed.  

Crystal, you are so right that the church's lack of humility and unwillingness to ever admit that it has been wrong on anything is one of its biggest corporate sins. Whatever happened to moral integrity and honesty?  And, as you also note (quoted below), it is so damaging to the relationship between the 1.1 billion and the few thousand.

I don't expect them to admit being mistaken, it just would be a nice change. If the relationship between the church and its flock was like a relationship between two people, that relationship would be seriously damaged by the continual lack of humility and honesty and respect on the part of the church in its dealings with lay people. 

 in the bishops' point of view, why are they unable to teach 99% of the people that contraception is sinful? Have they all suddenly become totally incompetent teachers, unable to communicate? Or have Catholics suddenly become totally deaf, unable to hear what they say? What happened, that they have suddenly become separated from the faithful by a wall of incomprehension?

Actually I should also return the question: why are we unable to teach the great majority of bishops that contraception is not sinful? Have we suddenly become totally unable to communicate, or have they become totally deaf, unable to hear what we say? What happened, that we have suddenly become separated from our bishops by a wall of incomprehension?

Few married couples themselves believe that it is sinful - because it's not.

I agree with you, but it's not going to convince anyone who doesn't believe it already.

They know contraception is not a sin.

That's certainly the easiest explanation - there is no worse deaf than he who does not want to hear, as the saying goes - but are you sure of it? It seems that we are so sure that contraception is not sinful that it's easier to believe that those who differ must be dishonest than to entertain the thought that they might believe what they say. 

Claire, I think that some do believe it's sinful - but why do they believe it?  For the celibates, it may be because they have no experience of committed marital sexual love. For the relatively small number of non-celibates who embrace the teaching, some may truly believe it, some may simply be intimidated by the church's teachings - even Jean admits to wondering "what if they are right".

Leaving it to conscience just makes sense - if Paul VI hadn't ignored the overwhelming recommendation of the bishops, this whole issue would have been moot years ago.  If the church could show even a tad bit of humility by phrasing the teaching in terms of "this is what we believe, and this is why we believe it and teach it, but we know that we are not the experts - we do not live the sacrament of marriage, and so, after studying the official teaching, each couple must consult their own conscience and choose the method of family planning that best supports their particular marriage and their family.  We have also decided to restudy the documents and recommendations of the bishops who were members of the Birth Control Commission in the 1960s, since they developed their recommendations after hearing the testimony of married people, which had never been done before then, nor has it been done since then.  It is time to take another look."

I know - dream on!  Humility is not among the virtues evident in most of the hierarchy or among those who define the "teachings of the magisterium".

in the bishops' point of view, why are they unable to teach 99% of the people that contraception is sinful? Have they all suddenly become totally incompetent teachers, unable to communicate? Or have Catholics suddenly become totally deaf, unable to hear what they say? What happened, that they have suddenly become separated from the faithful by a wall of incomprehension?

Hi, Claire, 

I can't really speak for the bishops as a whole, as I don't always know why they do what they do :-).  I suppose, in a group that large, there will be more than one factor at work.

I believe that many, perhaps most, bishops, would insist that they do teach that contraception is sinful.  For example, many/most of them almost certainly mention it from time to time in their diocesan newspapers, as on one of the 5- or 10-year anniversaries of Humanae Vitae (read by whom, though?).  Perhaps some of them preach about it in their own preaching, but most of us will hear our bishop preach only a handful of times (or fewer) over the course of his ministry.  At least some of them, perhaps many, have diocesan departments to promote this sort of thing.  We've had  some articulate NFP advocates in our archdiocesan office.  

The latter point brings up something else: bishops may exist in a bit of a bubble, surrounded by people who tend to think as they do.  (Not an original observation at dotCom :-)). I don't mean to be too critical in noting this.  For one thing, we should expect bishops to hire people who are committed to the same principles and programs as the bishops are.  For another, are many of us really very different, in naturally tending to interact with people who share our worldview?  The abandonment with which percentages are tossed about on dotCom ("99%", or "virtually everyone" uses contraception, it's claimed around here; one would think that if the number wasn't capped at 100%, they might climb even higher!) suggests that bubble-existing is a pervasive hazard in modern life.  But the fact remains (I am supposing) that when a bishop walks down the corridor at the diocesan office, he probably is going to nod hello to a number of people who think contraception in marriage is sinful.  

Back to the first point: because a bishop can't be everywhere, the bishop surely expects his clergy and other church ministers/employees to teach that contraception is sinful, from the parish ambo, and in Catholic schools and religious ed classes.  Does this actually happen, though?  

Here's another possible factor: most bishops still are old enough to have lived through, and recall pretty clearly, the period in church life where this issue was first litigated, culminating in Humanae Vitae and its aftermath.  I doubt they want to relitigate it.  And this gets to something crucially important: people who have been through a high-conflict time like that are not going to be naturally open and trusting of those who argue from the other side of the issue.  I think there are suspicions and assumptions of bad faith - on both sides of this issue.  A number of the comments here would tend to confirm those suspicions.

Here's yet another factor.  People like me (and, I believe, you) and those who are younger than us, like our children, are sort of post-Humanae Vitae.  By the time I married, in the late '80's, things were setttling into what is now the status quo: the church authorities were committed to Humanae Vitae, and from what I can discern (keeping in mind the caution of bubble-existing I noted above), most of the women I knew were using contraception at least for some periods of their marriages.  I think I've shared here before that I was married for five years before I had even heard that contraception was illicit in the view of the church.  I think there is a lot of genuine igorance out there regarding what the church teaches.

Finally - this may be further evidence of my own bubble, as the parish where I minister happens to have many first-generation immigrants, but I don't think we should assume that the attitudes of developed-world-born-and-bred women are shared universally.  


Claire - I know my previous comment was too long, but meant to conclude with this: if I am at least partially right in my analysis, then just the fact that Francis wants to *talk about* these things is a positive.  At least I hope so.


Jim P, you apparently accept church teaching that using modern contraception is sinful.

Yes - but I also think it's much more complicated than a simple yes/no binary.  One ameliorating factor surely is the ignorance I alluded to in my prior comment in reply to Claire: I think contraception is just sort of accepted as a "given" by a lot of people without giving a great deal of thought to the moral implications - if the moral implications even are known.  

Conscience also can be a  factor, as it certainly seems to be for you.

For people who are conflicted about it, I would recommend spiritual direction.




JP - sorry, the majority of US bishops were appointed by JPII or Benedict - long after Humanae Vitae.  They may have been young priests or seminarians at that time but that is a stretch to think that 1968 impacts their decisions today.

It is again a reality that they are chosen because of their conservative credentials and connections - they are willing to support and say anything that fits the usual cultural war battles - thus, sign off on contraception, female priests, abortion, end of life issues, etc.  Issues such as death penalty, economy, poverty, folks leaving the church barely register on a terna or questionnaire.  (and why some of the best priests aren't bishops - they don't meet or won't meet this type of loyalty demand).  Thus, you see two defining characteristics - those who went to Rome for degrees and gained contacts and those who went to Rome and have degrees predominantly in canon law.

It is a form of clericalism and institutional rigidity - there is little to no weight given to pastoral men; those who know and live a scripturally based lifestyle; those that have expertise in liturgy, organizational and human development; who have the *smell of sheep" on them.

JP - sorry, the majority of US bishops were appointed by JPII or Benedict - long after Humanae Vitae.  They may have been young priests or seminarians at that time but that is a stretch to think that 1968 impacts their decisions today.

Bill - I've noticed a marked difference between those who lived through those days having a stake in the outcome, and those who didn't.  For people like me and younger, the Papal Commission may as well be the Battle of Hastings. :-)


...the Papal Commission may as well be the Battle of Hastings. :-)

Both of which have had lasting consequences. :-)

John P - absolutely!

JP - agree but my experience is different.  My profs and my colleagues who lived throught that period of time were both in tune with and sympathetic to the stand that Charles Curran took.  Some still are in correspondence with him.

Most of those priests found some of the episcopal responses (follow the leader) to be embarrassing and non-pastoral.  And, in fact, some bishops, to their credit, worked on pastoral solutions to the Paul VI edict.  And do you know the story of the two US bishops who resigned because of HV?

So, in fact, most priests I know in their 70 or 80s would react differently from what you seem to be assuming or proposing.  It is the young clerics (those for whom HV is a history leasson) who appear to just mimic the hierarchy and, all too often, haven't a clue about what HV says; its pastoral implications; etc.  For them, it is a simple, rigid, birth control is evil - end of story.  Sad.

And how do you reconcile the recent episcopal national conferences that have released Family Life survey results in which they highlight the gap between reality and church policy in terms of birth control, divorce, etc.\


The bishops also acknowledged that church teaching can sometimes be a challenge, with some respondents seeing the teaching "as disconnected from real-life experience."

"Many ... expressed particular difficulties with the teachings on extra-marital sex and cohabitation by unmarried couples, divorce and remarriage, family planning, assisted human reproduction, homosexuality. The church's teaching in these sensitive areas is often not experienced as realistic, compassionate, or life-enhancing."

At Holy Cross College, Martin (Irish Bishops spokesman) said Catholic teaching on birth control, cohabitation, same-sex relationships and divorce is "disconnected from real-life experience of families -- and not by just younger people."

Many of the survey respondents in Dublin "said that the teaching appears as not practical in relation to people's day-to-day struggles, being at best an unrealistic ideal. There appears to be a 'theory-practice' gap," he said.

Germany has produced the same results, etc.  So, not sure that what you state is really where folks are at.

Jim P,

One ameliorating factor surely is the ignorance ....I think contraception is just sort of accepted as a "given" by a lot of people without giving a great deal of thought to the moral implications - if the moral implications even are known.

Some of the bishops seem to be falling into the same trap - they assume couples ignore the teaching on contraception out of ignorance - of what it says and why. And that is not generally true. Even though only a few bishops conferences have released reports so far, they are in agreement (Germany, Ireland, some dioceses of England, etc) - people do know and understand the teaching, but they disagree with it.

 I'm not clear on what you mean by people not thinking about the "moral implications".  Perhaps you could be more specific. For most married couples, keeping the marriage strong and healthy is an important moral consideration - choosing the method of family planning that best supports the unitive aspect of marital love is part of that. And some churchmen totally ignore the moral implications of the reality that sometimes devastating harm (evil?) has been done and continues to be done by enforcing this teaching in the few places now where it can be enforced.

Conscience also can be a  factor, as it certainly seems to be for you.

Conscience should be a factor, not "can" be.  God gave each of us a mind and a conscience and expects us to use them, not simply "obey" because "the church says so." Each married couple has the responsiblity to take steps to keep their marriage healthy, for the good of themselves, for the good of their children, for the good of society as a whole.  The church itself teaches primacy of conscience. It also teaches that the conscience must be "informed".  That may mean a lot of study beyond just official church teaching. Those who confine themselves to studying only what the church has to say about it are not truly informing their consciences, because church documents do not tell the whole story. They airbrush the history, the roots of the teaching (see the piece on Augustine above, as one example), and also ignore all that has changed in our understanding of human biology, human psychology, and of marriage itself (from business deal to a relationship based on love), and the realities that face families in the 21st century. We no longer live in ancient times.  The PTB did consult with lay people once. Even though the members of the birth control commission were hand-picked, and the membership and voting rules were manipulated several times for the various meetings of the commission by Ottaviani and the other conservative forces of the Curia behind the scenes to try to guarantee the outcome they wanted, the testimony the bishops heard from laity - including married couples - convinced them - and most changed their minds on the teaching. They listened to the Holy Spirit speaking through the laity - they demonstrated the wisdom Newman urged on the clerics of the church. But, pride and arrogance carried the day in the end and cost Rome the very thing it feared would happen if it changed the teaching (as it should have) - credibility, a weakening of papal and "magisterial" teaching authority.  You may not have been around during that time and you may have decided to blow off what happened during the meetings of the Birth Control commission that led them to reverse the "traditional" teaching in an overwhelming vote, but don't you think that it would be good to set about studying to learn the truth of what happened then? Unless you teach history, there are probably not many people who consult you to obtain greater understanding of the Battle of Hastings. You are a deacon - and most likely you do sometimes work with married couples struggling with this teaching. You have a moral obligation to educate yourself and NOT simply confine that education to studying what HV and Theology of the Body claim to be "truth".  You may still be convinced that HV got it right, but at least you should know why those bishops voted to change the teachings. You should know why several national Bishops Conferences went on record to oppose HV and why hundreds of priests in the US took out a full page ad in the New York Times expressing disagreement with HV - showing extraordinary moral courge - at least they did before the hammer of Rome came down on them. And you should encourage all couples struggling with this issue to do so also - on their own! - and try not to push them into the conclusion that you came to personally. "Papa" does not always know best (you youngsters can google a TV program called "Father Knows Best" if the allusion is unclear).

As I understand the Church's view, the proscription against artificial birth control is to supposed to bring husband and wife together to procreate or to work together in abstinence during fertile periods per NFP, thus promoting the uniative aspects of marriage. That is, the onus of prevention requires that both spouses cooperate, whereas using condom, coitus interruptus, diaphragm, pill or sterilization places the burden of prevention on only one party (though, yes, some couples do use condoms and spermacides, which requires the cooperation of both parties). Couples ideally learn to ways to communicate their intimacy through non-sexual methods during fertile periods, thus deepening their intimacy and the strength of their marriages. 

Moreover, not using artificial contraception also keeps couples focused on the procreative aspects of sex, which is supposed to make them approach marital congress with reverence. Sexual pleasure is encouraged, but mere "fun sex" seems to be frowned upon.  

NFP proponents say that their method tangentially makes husbands less dumb about gynecological issues, and makes sex better through delayed gratification. 

I don't see anything wrong with holding up such a teaching as an ideal. I'm all for less dumb husbands (though delayed gratification may tend to make sex quicker rather than better).

I do have a problem with declaring anything outside of this teaching a grave sin without regard to real life. Forcing couples to rely on NFP its attendant charts and observations that leave room for human error might be a hardship that would weaken marital bonds. Am thinking of women with health problems for whom a zero-pregnancy risk is desirable. Or of couples who face severe financial or time burdens because they must both work and care for a special needs child or elderly relative.


"Many commentators have speculated about Francis’ effect on Catholics in the U.S. and around the world. The survey finds he is widely admired, but has his leadership sparked increased devotion among the faithful or inspired former Catholics to return to the church? " Pew Research Center.

Pope Francis is an axial age Catholic Christian  religion supreme leader. We are transitioning into becoming a post-axial age faith and moral agency phenomenon.  So, my answer to the question is 'no.' There is no way an apple becomes an orange. I have been writing about this for years, writing based on diverse experts' research. Unless the Catholic laity choose to read the relevant literature and become activists in this new global age presumably we will see little meaningful change.



Hi, Anne - sorry, I had not checked back in here for a few days, did not realize the conversation was continuing.

By 'ignorance" about "moral implications", I simply meant to suggest that some people are ignorant that there *are* any moral implications to birth control; that taking the Pill is thought to be the moral equivalent of taking an aspirin, i.e. it's not thought to be a particularly morally weighty decision.  I have also seen instances in which the morality that is considered is the ethics of women's health, e.g. "if I take this pill, what will it do to my body?" - which, I suppose, is also akin to the morality of taking an aspirin.  It's perfectly legitimate, so far as it goes.  I don't think it goes far enough, though.

Yes, I've heard the tale of the pre-HV commission before.  One can scarcely hang out here and avoid it.  Still, I continue to believe that there is a fundamental difference in attitude toward the issue between those who still recall those events and those of us who don't.  Different generations view things differently.  Our life experiences are different.  Whether that is a reason for people who dislike HV to hope, or to despair, I can't decide - perhaps a bit of both.  I do think, though, that the people on the victorious side who actually witnessed the late '60s and early '70's in the church are not eager to rehash those battles again, particularly when (from their point of view - I'm talking about the bishops here) there seems to be no upside to the exercise.

FWIW, nobody has ever approached me for counseling on the use of contraception.  If they did, I would give the advice I've already given here: seek spiritual direction.  I am not a spiritual director.  The people in my parish don't do things because Father Said So (much less because The Deacon Said So - I can barely get my own kids to do things on that basis).  I expect that most formal contraceptive counseling these days takes place in the offices of gynecologists and that in most cases there is not a spiritual component to it.  Spouses ultimately are responsible for their moral decision on this matter.  In saying that, I don't discount the possibility that spouses may be called before a Judge some day to give an account of themselves.  Thank goodness He privileges mercy.

At the same time, I do have an obligation, which on most days I cheerfully embrace, to teach, in the name of the church, as for example when giving a homily, what the church actually teaches, and to explain it if an explanation is called for (not that I'm a particularly gifted apologist).  I don't have an obligation to give both sides of the argument.  I'm called to proclaim the truth, not both truth and falsehood.  My opinion is that falsehood and error needs no boosting from me these days.

You and I apparently disagree in that I do believe the church speaks with moral authority on this matter, and many other matters with a moral dimension, and the church's magisterial teachings on these matters should be given considerable weight.  I believe that the Holy Spirit guides the church on matters of faith and morals.