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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.

About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



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in the article linked to, it notes that she was the editor of Conscience described as a Catholic pro-choice publication. This is not an ad hominen, but this platform might give a perpective on her views.

For all the commentary - and all of it has some value - I'm still of the school that "MOST religion is local." enchantment with Pope Francis is fine, but not sure that's translating to making any one community or cleryperson more attractive or open.

Still, I feel some enthusiasm and muted hope.

Speaking of polling results:


Papal anniversary: top marks for warmth but now get to work on abuse record, curial reform and the role of women – poll

12 March 2014 22:00 by Abigail Frymann

All the hot button issues of importance to westerners were decided by papal diktat.  Many seem to want our pope to produce his own diktats but that is not the way he conceives his role as bishop of Rome.  He has convoked a synod, which may be just the first.  And I think he would defer to the synod's wishes, if not encourage it to speak its mind frankly just as Pope John did.  Time will tell.

I understand that the spiritual leader of over a billion people worldwide--people who are often at odds with the teachings of their own church--invites intense scrutiny. 

But--and maybe this is just me having a Protestant moment--the amount of coverage about Pope Francis on this blog strikes me as a little obsessive, and I wonder to what end?

Grant noted in an earlier post that church attendance has not increased since Pope Francis was elected. I don't see liberals and conservatives finding new common ground as a result of this papacy; in fact they seem to have successfully used some of Pope Francis's utterances to, if not deepen, at least more sharply delineate their differences. Doctrine seems unlikely to change. 

It seems to me that evaluating the pope's effect on the Church at this point is premature.,d.aWM

This article from today's New York Times indicates sharp geographic differences in the Church on such questions as divorce and re-marriage. The divide would no doubt be true, and perhaps in even greater numbers, with regard to the ordination of women and same-sex marriage.

Two of these questions will certainly come before the 2014 and 2015 Synods. Can consensus be achieved?

Reports of the two-day meeting of the cardinals before the 22 February Consistory indicate that the cardinals were not of one mind at all concerning the admission of divorced and re-married Catholics who had not gone through the annulment process to the reception of the Eucharist. And the dissenters were not just from the "southern tier." I don't know how else to read Cardinal DiNardo of Galveston-Houston's interview with NCR. He certainly seemed opposed to any change in the present discipline. And he is at present Vice-president of the USCCB.

Given that there seems to be no consensus among the bishops about any of the major issues confronting them,, and given that they do not seem to agree as to whether or not change is even possible, i'm not optimistic about the outcome of the October synod -- unless they can agree to studying *how* consensus *ought* to be reached
In other words, their problems are more basic than the problems having to do with the family --they need a theological epistemology to help them reach solid, truly realistic conclusions. Rhetoric and good intentions alone will not suffice.

"It seems to me that evaluating the pope's effect on the Church at this point is premature."

Amen, JHR.

Now I am aware of Patricia Miller, the non-awareness of whom was doing me no apparent harm. To those who are disappointed to arrive at church a year later and find no condom dispenser in the rest room nor former Sister, now Father, Debbie presiding at Mass, I can only say, "Wow." To everyone else, I say, keep an eye on Francis but stick close to Jesus. That is, sort of, an implication of Paul Bauman's piece.

Jean - I think it's not just Commonweal.  Virtually all of the Catholic and religious sites I visit have a lot of Francis pieces, and much of it is keyed off of secular-media stories.  I assume he's getting this coverage because he's making news, and a dull pope wouldn't garner this much media attention.

Like Tom, whose comment I endorse, my radar had heretofore failed to detect Patricia Miller's existence, with no noticeable ill-effects on my part.  I guess Francis must be doing some good things, as enemies of the church are now carping about him.


Is Patricia MIller an enemy of the church?

Francis allowing discussion is just unheard of from the Vatican in the last thirty five years. Change will come. We just don't know how it will play out. 

From Tom Reese column today.


"Church reform also requires changes in policies. Liberals, conservatives and the media have focused on issues like women priests, gay marriage and birth control, even though Francis has encouraged them not to obsess over these issues. But he has raised the issue of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. When questioned about arguments among the cardinals on this issue, he responded:

I would have been more worried if there hadn't been an intense discussion in the Consistory, because it would have been useless. The Cardinals knew that they could say what they wanted, and they presented different points of view, which are always enriching. Open and fraternal debate makes theological and pastoral thought grow. That doesn't frighten me. What's more, I look for it."


I'm no expert on politics in an all-male celibate feudal oligarchy, but It seems to me that Papa Francesco has been shoring up his base [i.e., the PEOPLE] for his first year before he ventures out to do battle and maybe even slay the clerical dragon that is guarding the Vatican keep.  [I find this upcoming synod - with the survey of the faithful - very interesting.  It's almost like Francesco is setting a trap for the hierarchs.]

The sheeple love Francesco for his humility.  The "lepers of the church," not so much.  Let's face it, the present hierarchy will never "smell like the sheep."   

Something tells me that a Jesuit would understand how to play the long game:  Maybe Francesco understands that his papacy can only "prepare the way of the Lord" for the next guy who will come after him.

As a member of the "shadow church" of "departed" Catholics who has been sitting in an Episcopal pew on Sundays (while not holding my breath) because I could no longer actively support the serious dysfunctions in the Catholic church that cause real harm to real people, I think both Grant and Ms. Miller have valid points.

Grant notes that most Catholics in the pews have found ways to stay in the church in spite of some of its teachings. Ms. Miller notes that style and tone may not be enough to bring very many members of the "shadow" church back to Catholic pews on Sunday mornings.   Both of these observations are true.  As Grant notes, Francis has sparked a great deal of interest and enthusiasm - among active Catholics, former Catholics and the world in general.  It is not enough, however, for most of those of us who made the decision to stop enabling the dysfunction and depart.  

Although I welcome the change in tone, and the focus on the gospel instead of Catholic rules, and all of the other positives Francis demonstrates as the world's most visible Christian leader, for this "departed" Catholic, it is not enough. He is such a huge improvement over his two predecessors that I had hoped to be able to return to active participation in the church. But, so far, it is not enough.  Although I would like to see dramatic change in the church's teachings on marriage, sexuality and gender, I do think it will be at least 2050 before this happens, and longer if he dies prematurely and the cardinals go into reactionary mode and elect someone more in keeping with Francis' two predecessors. If that happens, there is really no hope for the church in the west - it will continue its long decline. In the US, the church is being propped up by the immigrants from Latin America. But there are already clear signs that the second and third generations descended from Latino immigrants are also leaving the church. It could be a temporary bump only and then the Catholic church may begin a decline that resembles that of Europe. Francis' archaic understanding of women and their proper "demeanor" and roles is especially upsetting. I am among millions of women who are just really, really tired of being patronized by the celibate males who run the church, from the Vatican on down to the local parish.

However, I would swallow hard and consider returning both my body and my money to a Catholic parish (even if as an officially second-class citizen of the church) if Francis would summon up the honesty and moral courage to stop being defensive about the immoral role played by the bishops in protecting those who sexually abused children and demand accountability and responsibility. He could begin by removing Finn as a symbol of this resolve, publicly reprimand a whole host of bishops (including Cardinal George), and set up a commission that includes parents to draft policies that spell out what the requirements are for ALL bishops in terms of reporting suspected molesters and will also spell out the consequences to bishops who are discovered to be protecting the possible molesters from investigation by the civil police authorities.  There are written policies in every US diocese at least that spell out requirements for everyone except the bishop.  It's long overdue that there be accountability at the top.

Abe - isn't she?

You tell me, holmes. You called her that. Seemed like a pretty perfunctory way of dismissing what she had to say, whereas Anne above seems to lend some credance to her perspective.

Anne Chapman,

You are so obviously Catholic. The vast majority of us in the pews are laboring to see more done on bishops who cover up. I believe Francis will deliver. But whether he does or not, neither you nor any of us should give up our church. 

Abe - no, I don't think of Anne that way.

Why should we never give up on the church, especially if it's causing some harm?  Giving up on the church isn't the same as giving up on God.  This makes me think of that  dubious expression: my country, right or wrong.

There's been much discussion among Catholics lately of cooperation with evil. So here is a question: Supposing that you, as a member of the laity, still believe all the theological and christological teachings, but think that ecclesiastical leaders and structure have run so far off the rails that continuing to support them is somehow cooperating with evil, what do you do?

1. Leave and try to find a more comfortable home where the same beliefs about God's nature and God's love of the world are taught and honored; or

2. Stay and hope to effect change from within, although you are told to your face that you are a sheep, that your role is to baa assent, and that your opinion is so little valued that on certain subjects, you are forbidden (albeit unavailingly) even to express it; or

3. Bumble along half in and half out, always unsettled and in doubt that you are doing the right thing.

A fourth possibility, which I think many would prefer, is to make a start on changing the conditions that make 2. seem so unappetizing and hopeless. Maybe this fall's synod will provide an unforeseen step in that direction. I have commented before about the farcical quality of a Synod on the Family attended exclusively by people who have never started a family and denying any seat at the table to one half of the people the Church says are essential to make a marriage.

The bishops attending may be settled in their ways and narrow in perspective, but many of them, I'm sure, are intelligent enough to spot and react to manifest absurdity. I'm hoping that the gust of their laughter, leveraged by the Holy Spirit, will blow the doors off the Synod room and sweep through the world. But even a light breeze would be something.

Crystal, do you think it's useful to see a distinction between the faith of the Church and its (very human, fallible, cowardly, and sometimes downright corrupt) guardians in the form of the hierarchy? 

Anne seems to have moved away from the hierarchy as a kind of conscientious objector. She has also, according to Church teaching about the sacraments and their validity, moved into some murky doctrinal waters. But if she is staying as true to the faith in a different "house" because she believes it would be a greater evil to continue encouraging the hierarchy with her presence, won't God understand this?

It strikes me that the Church ought to want Catholics like Anne because they are thoughtful and not just blindly following orders or blithely showing up for Mass twice a year and thinking that's good enough. Whether Pope Francis will have enough clout to get the hierarchs to realize that and try to bring those folks "home" would be an incredibly monumental task. Probably a miracle.

 What John asks is interesting.

I identify as Catholic and I blog about Catholic stuff, both the good and probably more often the bad, but I don't go to church anymore or contribute financially.  I don't know what will happen with the synod ... the US bishops seem pretty hopeless, but some bishops in Germany, Switzerland, and the UK have spoken out for change, so maybe there is hope.  What I fear is that the bishops will decide on change but that the pope will ignore their imput, as happened at V2 on the issue of contraception.

Crystal, do you think it's useful to see a distinction between the faith of the Church and its (very human, fallible, cowardly, and sometimes downright corrupt) guardians in the form of the hierarchy?

I do see a distinction between, for instance, Ignatian spirituality and the  way of proceeding chosen by the leaders of the church.  But the way the leaders of the church act and what they preach ... that can't be ignored.  It's that "by their fruit you'll know them" thing.  The fruit of the choice to say that women are not really people in the same way men are, that gay people and their relationships are "disordered", that divorced/remarried people son't  deserve the eucharist, that the church isn't at fault at covering up abuse .... that fruit is rotten.

Crystal, the people are the church. The hierarchy is one part of the church. We let them take it over. Paul Bauman writes that the faithful should take it back.  We can still have order and discipline with a chastened hierarchy who is known first for washing the feet of all. We should all wash each other's feet. It is always the humble being exalted and tha last first. 

Staying out is just as much a capitulation as staying in and not fighting for the gospel of Jesus. 

Bill M, just how do "the faithful take it back" as suggested by Paul Bauman?  It will take a lot more than prayer. The church is a political animal, and politics is at often at play in defining "doctrine" as much as is the Holy Spirit. (think Vatican I and "infallibility". The lead character in House of Cards would be impressed.) One might say politics has far more impact than does the Holy Spirit in many cases. But, this is imperial politics - only the members of the royal court can play. Nobody else has a voice, nobody else has a "vote".  At least in democratic governments there is some hope to "throw the bums out" and there is at least a chance to influence policy through our votes.

The institutional church is run by male celibates exclusively. As we are often reminded by those of the "orthodox" bent, it is not a democracy. The 1.1 billion who are "the people [who] are the church" as you note have no voice at all. As we have seen in Francis' apparent willingness to ask the laity about certain aspects of church teaching, not all bishops have interpreted this survey as a mandate to ask the people for their thoughts, insights, and interpretations. Because it is all a matter of interpretation, after all, and so they can simply go to the Synod with their own ideas, their own interpretations of what they think the laity think - without any consultation whatsoever.  And most American bishops have indeed decided that there is no need to actually ask the laity anything at all.

So - no voice, no "vote", no opportunity "to take back the church". And for women, it is even more impossible than for men. Men do have the option of Holy Orders if they so desire. Few take it, but it's there. As priests they may have the opportunity to someday be in charge - perhaps at the parish level, interpreting church laws strictly or loosely, perhaps at the bishop level with even greater powers over the people (close their churches, impose unwanted pastors, remove wanted pastors, etc), and at the highest levels, to recommend people for bishop (who then interpret matters according to their own wishes) and even to define doctrine. That is not an option that is available to any woman at all.

So, we are all helpless with one exception - we can vote with our feet and our checkbooks.  And that is the vote some have decided to take - the only one available. Others simply stay put and do what they will, and think what they will, and believe what they will regardless of what the church teaches and what they think is wrong and should change. They just take what they like and ignore the rest. And that is probably a rational choice, but it puts no pressure on the PTB to change anything at all. It does nothing for the church universal - for example, for the women in Africa who might have some protection from HIV if the men had access to condoms, but who don't - partly because of the obstruction and interference of Rome in the work of health workers on the ground. They not only forbid Catholic groups to educate about condom usage and provide them, they have pressured governments (including the US under Bush) to not fund programs that include birth control and condom distribution under USAID funding.  So millions contracted HIV who might not have, and too often their children contracted it also before birth.  But, should we care about them as long as we have our lovely liturgies and pious devotions and Gregorian chang and our much vaunted intellectual superiority in theology?

Staying and hoping for the best means that there is no angst about making a decision on stepping outside this dysfunctional Roman Catholic "family" for a while.   Is that enabling?  Didn't Jesus once admonish us that we might have to leave "family" in order to follow him? Each person has to decide for himself or herself. As John Prior noted, some look at enabling the official church's dysfunction as perhaps flirting with "cooperation with evil".  It's an individual judgment call.


Sorry - it's "chant", of course!


I do agree with Anne.  I don't see how we lay people will ever have any power in the church.

An example - those Vatican survey results made public show that almost all Catholics, even those in Latin America, disagree with the curch on contraception, yet Francis now says "there's no need to change the teaching on contraception" ...

I don't see how we lay people will ever have any power in the church.

How does the fact that pope Francis disagree with lay people mean that lay people don't have power? Doesn't it mean, rather, that pope Francis doesn't have power? He can say what he wants, but people are using contraception. Isn't that proof that he does not have power on 99% of Catholics? All he can do is try to persuade, and if he fails  - as all church authorities have on the matter of contraception for the past 45 years - then he is powerless.


Claire, to say that they have failed is to ignore many places in the world, the Philippines being the most pronounced example, where they might have failed to persuade people but they have managed to persuade politicians to make it very difficult for people to obtain conrtraception.  The same is true in some African and Latin American countries -- less so in South America.  The Church's stance on contraception has profound effects on people in all of these countries, but especially on women and children.

Yeah, what Barbara said.  Here's a really informative 2010 article that gives an idea of how Catholic teaching affects medical treatment of AIDs ...

Re "fighting for the faith," I think there is a kind of "don't ask, don't tell" practice between women and their pastors on various issues like sex, contraception, marriage and some of these hot-button issues. 

Underneath the "don't ask, don't tell" practice, however, is a kind of informal "confession of women" on these matters that probably every woman on this blog has seen in action (and perhaps participated in).

Such "confessions" occur when a woman, feeling her neck about, say, having a tubal ligation, mentions it Catholic women friends. She typically articulates why she felt pushed to that decision--perhaps age, health, feelings of being overwhelmed by the existing number of children or other family obligations, frustrations with NFP within her marriage. The friends to whom she's "confessing" usually run through a kind of "litany of conscience" with her. E.g., you didn't do it so you could have an affair, you didn't do it because you didn't love the children you already had, you did it so you could better care for an existing family member who needs your help. "Absolution" comes in the form of, "I have done the same thing," or "I would have done the same in your shoes," or "Maybe that's better than being tempted with an abortion if you had gotten pregnant."

Sometimes "confessors" urge the woman to tell the priest if they think an issue is preying on her mind too much. But I have never heard of a "confessor" ratting anyone out to Father.

The "absolution" women get in these "confessions of women" may not save them from hellfire, and every woman who seeks the "confession of women" knows that she stands in direct opposition to the Church. But I think this informal practice does bespeak the desire of Catholic women to reconcile the Church's notion of "openness to life" with the realities of the female condition.

Catherine of Siena, John Courtney Murray, Alberto Hurtado, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas More, Hildegard of Bingen, Yves Congar, Dorothy Day, Jerome, Meister Eckhart, Oscar Romero, John of the Cross, Bernard Haring -- just to throw out the names of a few favorites at random -- flourished in and in most cases suffered at the hands of the Church in their day, which was no better and mostly no worse than ours. I mention that not to defend modern Catholic obtuseness and knuckleheadery but rather to show that it is possible to be holy while everyone around you is eager to be measured for maroon piping. I have many criticisms of the current Church, and every single one of them is the result of having been taught by that same Church that the criticisms are valid.

I could have mentioned Joan of Arc, too.

Tom, Flannery O'Connor expressed a similar opinion in one of her letters to a convert friend:

“...the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it. ”

I think she would have liked your line about being measured for maroon piping. Certainly Dorothy Day, who was often quite annoyed with bishops, would have.

Just a shame that so many talented and good people have chosen to leave. One day the church will apologize for its stance on contraception. The same way John Paul II apologized to Giordano Bruno. It is a real crime that Africans, South Americans and Phillipinos, among others cannot get contraceptives because of the RCC. 

I agree that Francis cannot be true if he does not own up to this and change this teaching. In the meantime he can apologize to Bernard Haring and  many others who followe their conscience. 

Actually, Jean, although I have many  Catholic women friends,  many going back to my college years more than 40 years ago, I honestly don't know a single one who had enough angst about contraception, tubal ligation, or a vasectomy for her husband to even think of "consulting" with friends or "confessing" or looking for some kind of "permission".  

The thought that using contraception in a committed marriage could lead to eternal hellfire was not even on the radar, because it is pure nonsense. If the subject came up at all in our all-women conversations  it was to compare notes on what to expect from a tubal if chosen, or how to convince a husband that a vasectomy was better or safer than a tubal.  Most docs recommended waiting some time after the last child is born - both to be sure that the couple truly believe the family to be "complete", but also because the failure rate is lower for women who wait than it is for women who opt for a tubal right after a delivery. At least that was the case during my childbearing years. Perhaps the operation is better now, but timing issues were important at one time for those seeking a tubal ligation.  The morality was not an issue - it was simply a matter of making the best choice as a medical "consumer".  The single most popular form of birth control in the US today is permanent birth control, with vasectomies leading tubals as first choice.   

As far as Flannery O'Connor's statement goes, many would not agree that the body of Christ is limited to the Roman Catholic church, but believe that Christ's "church" includes all.  Many also may believe that they would "suffer" for Christ but not from, or for, the institutional Roman Catholic church, although some noted individuals have done so, as Tom B listed. But believing in Christ does not require membership in the Catholic church.

Tom B, I'm not sure exactly what your point is, except to note that some people stay/stayed Catholic in spite of everything. Of course, some of those people lived at a time and in a place where the only christian game in town was the Catholic church.  Those in the east eventually had the choice of the Roman church or the Eastern Orthodox church.   Some of those you mention lived before the Reformation, and in some eras of history, not belonging to the church meant being a pariah in the community as well as in the church. It was safer to belong.

 But basically, it comes down to individual conscience. Some choose to stay in spite of.... and some choose not to stay because of....  They are equally valid choices. Being holy has nothing at all to do with being Catholic anyway.  Some holy people are Catholic. Some holy people are not.

What did Jesus promise His Church? That its clergy would all be saints? No. That its laity would all be saints? No. That its priests would all be wise? No. That they would all be kind? No. That the official Church would always tell the truth? Well, some of us seem to have been taught that, but it turns out. To be false also.

So what to do when confronted with a particularly inept (to be charitable) clergy? Stop participating in the Church? Well, what does that mean? Stop receiving the sacraments? I think that is self-punishing, not bishop correcting. Besides they are our closest connection with the Lord on a personal

basis. And one can always
contribute money directly to the very well regarded Catholic charities. (I can't see making tge poor suffer for the sins of the bishops.)

Not to mention telling the bishops directly what we think. Write to them. If they have a blog, send your message in no uncertain terms. Tell all the priests youmknow too, face to face, preferably. Contrar to popular belief, those men are human. Just look at what happened a year ago -- the red-clad, lace-laden cardinals of the RCC elected that very wild card Bergolio as pope. Yes, tbe hierarchy can be reached.

Sorry about the typos. Bad phone!

Anne Chapman, don't you think the Orthodox, the Protestants and the Scientologists have full complements of idiots, bullies, highbinders and nincompoops? As does the U.S. government, but somehow we persevere as Americans. My point was, simply, that if you are looking for a perfect society, you won't find it. But if you are looking for a place to be holy -- whole, complete, loving -- the Catholic Church has a record of members who have come pretty close to succeeding at it.

If you think you can construct a more perfect community on your own, by all means go ahead. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1782). If I were to try it, all my building blocks would have to come from what I learned at Church.

And I love the Flannery O'Connor quote. I should have had her on my list.


The lady who was my sponsor in my RCIA group was like the women you mention - she did speak to me of her health reasons for using contraception and she felt somewhat guilty.  But for me, whose mom took her to the doc for birth control pills when I was 17, it's all very strange  ;)

Sure all denominations have good and bad people in them but some other denominations have far less to answer for re: their official policieso.  The Epsicopal Church allows women to use their consciences in the areas of reproductive health, people aren't barred from communion if they divorce and remarry, gay people and gay relationships are acceped, and there is no global sex abuse crisis with massive institutional cover-ups.

Oh, and women can be priests, even presiding bishops  :)

Ann, perhaps it is different in New Orleans, but where I live, if I write to the bishop (cardinals in DC usually) - and I have done so, more than once - it has the same chance of reaching him as if I wrote a personal letter to Obama.  There is one difference - although letters written to politicians in Congress or to the President have almost no chance of being read by the addressee, someone in the office will respond to it - because politicians don't want to insult the people who vote, unlike bishops who have no concern whatsoever that their job might be in danger if the people in the pews aren't happy with them.  When writing to a Cardinal in DC (it has been the same for any of those who have been here for the last 40 years that I have written to), I have learned not to expect to hear an answer from anyone. It's a dead letter office.  But, it does have its humorous side. After writing several letters about the failure of bishops to be held accountable for protecting criminal priests and getting no response, I stapled one of them to the letter/pledge card from the Cardinal's Appeal, explaining why we would no longer contribute to it. We did hear from the diocese shortly afterward, but not to respond to my letter.  Someone wanted to make an appointment to come to our home  to explain to us how we could leave some of our assets to the archdiocese in our will.  

And no, Ann, Jesus did not promise that our leaders would be all wise or all good. But I think Jesus also felt that when we see something being done that is wrong, that harms the innocent, that we should at least try to DO something about it. As I recall, he stormed into the temple (sacred) and threw out the moneychangers.  He wasn't beyond acting instead of just talking. And as already discussed, there is little the people in the pews can do except show their disapproval by closing their checkbooks and/or walking out.  I don't think Jesus expected us to support criminality in the ranks of the hierarchy either.  A wholesale, across the board pattern of bishops protecting thousands of priests who molested kids is a lot more than just "inept".

Tom, of course all churches have their idiots. And no, America isn't perfect. But as Americans we do have a voice - it's called voting.  Catholics do not have a voice.

But the point is this - the idiots in the RCC have power that few idiots in other churches enjoy. Other christian denominations and other religions have neither the money nor the power that the Catholic bishops exert in this country and in many other countries as well.  The bishops just tap the parishes for money when they need it.  If they need money and there isn't enough, they close a few schools or churches.  There isn't another religious group in America that comes close to having the power and influence of the Catholic church, although a political combination of conservative evangelicals working together have some - still, not nearly as much.  So, the Catholic church can influence policy - and it has - in the US and it has tried in the United Nations. Obviously in the Phillippines the bishops have managed to thwart the best chance women have ever had in that country to gain access to reliable, safe birth control.

The issue isn't that there aren't plenty of problems with other denominations, it's that the Catholic church has so much power that its influence can be used for good or for bad.  And too often in recent decades its influence has led to weakening programs to help the poorest of the poor by reducing access to reliable birth control (in the worse cases in Africa, the mortality rate for women during pregnancy and/or childbirth is as high as 1 in 8), and by reducing access to quality condoms not only for bith control, but to reduce the incidence of the transmission of HIV to innocent women and any children they may conceive after they are infected.  Unfortunately this has opened the door to crooks who sell condoms very cheaply - damaged and weakened condoms that don't protect anyone.  This is what happens when groups like CRS are prevented by the church from supplying safe condoms.

The Catholic church should be better. The Catholic church should have the integrity to hold bishops accountable when they protect child molesters. The Catholic church should be using its influence to promote the health and welfare of the poorest of the poor in Africa, in Asia and still in some places in Latin America by cooperating with programs that provide birth control and HIV prevention instead of throwing up roadblocks to the people on the ground who are trying to save lives. The real world is out there, but the bishops much prefer their idealized world, safe in chanceries, far removed from the huts where women and children die of HIV that could have been prevented. There are a lot of holy Catholics out there working with those who so badly need help - but they don't have mitres, and very often they have to work against what the church mandates in order to be Jesus's hands and heart in their work.

Those who don't feel they can step away from active participation in the church should stay put. But, they should also do as Ann O recommends - give their money directly to those who are doing the work Jesus asked us to do - feeding the hungry, clothing the naked etc.  Catholic Relief Services is a top-notch organization, with a top rating from charity watchdog groups. They are my main "charity" and have been for years.  I also know people who work for them - many are frustrated that they are prevented from providing modern safe birth control and condoms to reduce the spread of HIV. I have a very close friend who has been doing HIV/AIDS prevention/education and Maternal/Child Health work on the ground in Africa for almost 15 years now. She knows what the bishops do not. She is there, they are not. She sees the results of their policies, the tragedies. Those who work for CRS are prevented from supplying reliable birth control and condoms for HIV prevention by the official Catholic church even though the major portion of their money comes from US taxpayers under grants from USAID.  It should be illegal for grantees to refuse to provide the best care possible, but right now the Catholic church gets away with it. 

It's not a matter of tolerating fools - it's a matter of deciding if you want to enable policies that hurt people, and sometimes lead to their death.

It's fine for all we comfortable, affluent women (and men) in the west. We can consult our consciences and choose whatever method of family planning best meets it - we have the choice. We have access to training in NFP but we also have access to the pill, to condoms, to tubal ligations, to all forms of modern, safe birth control.  Poor women in the world too often don't have that choice, and one reason some don't is because the Catholic church has put obstacles in the way.

I don't ask that anyone do what I have done unless they find that this is what their conscience tells them they must do.  I did not want to "leave" - I liked my parish, the pastor, the people, the ministries. I was quite comfortable there. But I felt like I had become more concerned about myself and my own comfort than about those who are harmed by the policies and teachings of the church. With no way to change them, no voice, I could not stop my conscience from pointing out that I was enabling.  Francis is a bright spot - and I won't hold my breath on him doing anything to change the status of women to equal from subservient in church teachings. But if something  real and genuine isn't done to hold bishops accountable when they protect priests who molest kids, then I will never be able to return. 

OK, I didn't really mean to stir up this hornets nest. I have found that few Catholics want to get into this discussion. I made a decision, others have made a different decision.. I just entered the conversation to note that while Grant is right that most Catholics find a way to "negotiate" with their own consciences about church teachings they disagree with and remain in the pews, Patricia Miller is also right that Francis personality and change of tone alone won't be enough to bring some back unless there are also doctrinal changes. The number is thirty million I believe - thirty million cradle Catholics in the US who are no longer actively participating in the church. They left for a whole range of reasons. Some will never come back no matter what the pope does - even if he changed church teaching on every hot button issue out there. That is because they have learned that one does not have to be Catholic to follow Christ. One does not have to be Catholic to try to become ever so slightly "holier" while passing through this life. And some just don't care. They have no interest in formal religion, especially the younger adults. 

Grant, please forgive me. I did not intend to hijack this discussion.

Crystal, yes, Catholic women of my acquaintance tend to feel hinky about sterilization. Perhaps converts like you and I have a harder time with the whole doublethink approach to some of these issues than someone like Anne C. who was raised in the Church.

And, yes, Lambeth allowed Anglicans to use artificial contraception within marriage in 1930. The wording makes it clear that the Conference adopted the ruling with some reluctance, but it trusted couples to use their consciences:

Where there is clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, the method must be decided on Christian principles. The primary and obvious method is complete abstinence from intercourse (as far as may be necessary) in a life of discipline and self-control lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles. The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.

Many Anglicans remained uncomfortable with contraception. I've never been much of a fan of C.S. Lewis, but he wrote thoughtfully about his qualms about artificial birth control, and make interesting reading. They're easily found via Google.

Thanks, Jean - how interesting that CS Lewis wrote on that subject.  I have problems with some of his theology but I really liked his fiction books when I was a teen.

"Other christian denominations and other religions have neither the money nor the power that the Catholic bishops exert in this country and in many other countries as well"

The Episcopal and Presbyterian churches own a good chunk of Manhattan as well as other areas. Benny Finn has his own jet. Oral Roberts. Pat Robertson is a billionaire...Jerry Falwell.

Of course, one can get a greater seat in heaven if one is selected to Joel Osteen's Platinum group at Esalen for $10,000 and up........

At one time in this country one could not get a job in certain compaines unless the word WASP was included in the Resume. .

Bill, yes, these groups have plenty of money. At one time, the Episcopalians and Presbyterians - especially the Episcopalians - also had a lot of clout, and probably still do, behind the scenes anyway.  And it's true that at one time, being a WASP was a big deal and a big help in getting a good job or having influence. Those days are pretty much gone, even if they do own great swaths of Manhattan.  The Catholic church owns plenty of high-priced real estate too, and it's not just cathedrals, churches and schools.  As  far as symbols of Catholic influence v. Protestant influence are concerned, it is truly amazing in a way that there is not a single Protestant on the Supreme Court - the majority of members are Catholic. At one time, nobody would have ever nominated or approved a Catholic on the Court.  The Episcopalians ruled there.  But this is the 21st century, not the 19th or first-half 20th.

The personal wealth of a handful of televangelists has nothing to do with the issue of Catholic bishops putting up obstacles to poor women getting access to birth control and condoms for HIV/AIDS prevention, nor does it have anything at all to do with the reality that the Catholic bishops in the US, in Europe, Ireland, Australia, and probably every other country in the world chose to protect priests who molested kids and nothing has been done to hold them accountable by Rome.

Barbara and Crystal, you're right, I had forgotten about Africa and Asia - a minor lapse of memory about just a few billion people!

 It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it

One more way in which the analogy with marriage comes to mind!

Anne, in Rhode Island the bishop replies and replies promptly. He does not write what I want to read, but he does acknowledge receiving my letter and address my questions at least briefly. I do like that about him.

Anne --
I understand your frustration. And I would not expect the Archbishop to answer my letter. Ut if he got enough of them often enough he would no doubt eventually get the message that his flock thinks he's failing them. My own bishop is said to be a very good listener, but obviously. most of them aren't. Still at least the newspapers in the worst dioceses print the truth about the worst ones, and that can only be because some Catholics do talk back via the newspapers And there are also Commonweal and America and The National Catholic
Reporter. So when Bergolio -- to the public's great surprise -- was elected pope, that to me was a sure sign that the bishops of the world are indeed finally hearing our complaints.

But why try to save the Church in the first place? Because,I believe, it's the one founded by Christ, and I believe that the Holy Spirit has not deserted it.

Jean, I think what you are describing was more true of women who were having families in the 70s and 80s, less true now.  My mother did confess her decision to use contraception and was told she was the equivalent of a prostitute.  She used them anyway and stopped going to church. I feel like people make the decision to stay and tune out messages on contraception (in particular, to the extent they receive those messages).  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.

Re: Barabara's comment about people living in a state of ongoing dishonesty; some of them keep going to Mass but don't go to confession any more. And pastors wonder why the Communion lines are long and the confession lines are short. The answer isn't too hard to figure out. To me it seems that before the Church re-evaluates its teaching on contraception, etc. a more basic consideration needs to be re-evaluated.  That would be our concept of what constitutes a mortal sin.  Most people understand mortal sin to be a deal-breaker with God, a relationship destroyer;  a sin which could separate one from God forever in the next life.  There is a cognitive dissonance to putting, for instance, use of a condom by a married couple, in this category.  It is my understanding (someone with more Church history/theology knowledge correct me if I'm wrong) that in the early church there was a short list of these deal-breaker sins, and they were pretty self-evident.  The list got added to over the years, and somehow the idea got started that any sin that had to do with sex was by definition, mortal.  I think this is still pretty much standard teaching, the only exceptions being something which is more or less involuntary, such as a thought crossing one's mind unbidden. Maybe what needs to be re-examined is the black and white, binary concept of where that bright line is drawn; admitting that there is a lot of gray area in life.

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.


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