Catholics, Contraceptives, And Their Church

A Univision poll (pdf) of 12,000 Catholics in 12 countries found that big majorities reject the logic of Humanae Vitae:

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The contraceptive question stands out to me. On other issues, there is a more equal division in the pews, or more support for the hierarchy’s position (two-thirds oppose civil marriage equality, for example), or huge differences between the developing and the developed world. But on contraception, massive majorities in Europe and Latin America and the US oppose the Vatican’s position.

And in some ways, contraception is the core issue, as Pope Paul VI recognized in his unilateral rejection of his own commission’s recommendation on the subject. If sex can be licit without procreation, the arguments shift tectonically on a whole host of other matters. Such a change would open the question of sex as purely expressive of love rather than instrumental for procreation, of whether gay sex can be licit, of pre-marital sex, of a whole universe of possibilities – and areas for moral thinking. That’s why Paul VI shut the debate down prematurely – he saw the potential consequences.

But he didn’t succeed and the hierarchy has ever since abjectly failed to make the case for its thirteenth century version of natural law. At some point, the church will have to stop preaching this or give up credibility in the Americas and Europe in favor of Africa and the Philippines, or remain resigned to promoting a core set of morals simply ignored by the vast majority of its members.

I think they should stop preaching this and begin thinking seriously about a new sexual ethic that is actually informed by science and by the experience of countless millions of lives. It’s also striking to me that the question of married priests – which Pope Benedict XVI dismissed as inconceivable (except when it meant snagging a few reactionary Anglicans) – so evenly divides the faithful.

It’s pretty close to 50-50. Unlike contraception, it requires no deeper shift in doctrine – and could well do more to revive the church in the West than any other single reform. It’s the lowest-hanging fruit for Francis to pluck, if he has a mind to. But check out the question of women priests as well. I would have expected a solid majority against, but in fact, the church is evenly divided on that as well: 45 – 51.

As for abortion, I agree with Morrissey, who thinks the top-line numbers are misleading:

[T]he striking figure here is the low number of Catholics who think abortion should be unrestricted. If, as the question suggests, abortion was restricted to only issues of the mother’s health and rape and incest, there may be considerable support for having just those limited options available as compared to the abortion-on-demand environment which currently dominates the US. Only 10% of American Catholics, and 20% of those in Europe, favor abortion on demand.

The questions of human sexuality are rightly deemed less grave than the termination of human life.