3,2,1…Get ready to talk numbers.
Remember last February when the Catholic Sistas conducted their own informal survey in response to the media claims that 98% of women who identify as Catholic use contraception? Well, some other Catholic women in Washington, D.C. have done a formal survey using the nationally-regarded primary research and consulting firm, Polling Company, Inc. WomanTrend.
Mary Rice Hasson, J.D., a Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and director of the Women, Faith, and Culture project together with Michele M. Hill who has been active in apostolates within the Archdiocese of Baltimore have issued a preliminary report, What Catholic Women Think About Faith, Conscience, and Contraception, in which 824 church-going Catholic women ages 18-54 were surveyed.
While the data indicates that most Catholic women do not fully support the Church’s teachings on contraception, the results also do not show the sweeping rejection of Church teaching the media portrays either. This first report provides some useful insight. From their website, Women, Faith and Culture: Exploring What Catholic Women Think:
Catholic Women and Faith
90% say faith is important to daily life
72% rely on homilies to learn the faith
28% have gone to Confession within the year
Catholic Women and Contraception
33% think the Church says “yes” to contraception
13% say “yes” to Church teaching
37% say “no” to Church teaching
44% say “no, but maybe …” to Church teaching
The report shows that about one-third of church-going Catholic women incorrectly believe that couples have the right to decide for themselves the moral acceptability of contraception regardless of Church teaching. When Church teaching was explained, 44% were receptive to learning more. These results suggest the problem is in part catechetical, and that women want more instruction. Church-going Catholic women fall into three groups, the researchers found: 1) “the faithful” who say “yes” to Church teaching, 2) “the dissenters” who say “no” to it, and 3) the “soft middle” who are reluctant to go all the way either way, and are receptive to more information.
The hope for this project is that good conversations can begin about how to reach the women who identify as Catholic but reject Church teaching on contraception, and yet, still in their heart want to do the right thing. Mary and Michele also hope that the data will inspire our priests to have confidence to preach the truth on this issue. While 72% of women said that the homilies in Mass are their primary source for learning about Church teaching, more than eight in ten said they believe they can be “good Catholics” even if they “do not accept some of the Catholic Church’s teachings on sex, family planning, birth control, and reproduction.” They seem to be listening, but not accepting.
The researchers also hope that this report can help us in our approach to addressing these topics. I admit, my knee-jerk reaction is to wag a finger at the dissenters and tsk-tsk them for their rebellion, but that isn’t helpful. It’s one of those Golden Rule things. I have to remember, humbly, that I also journeyed in conversion away from a secular contraceptive mindset to a full acceptance of Catholic teaching, and it wasn’t based on one homily or one conversation about obedience. It certainly wasn’t the result of someone belittling me for my ignorance.
It was based on a search for truth that was aided by patient people who would explain what I needed to know — firmly, but in love. It was also aided by people who taught by example. In my parish, I saw the words of the Catechism lived out and I understood, and embraced, the high importance of accepting the gift of children, and raising them in the Sacraments.
These topics have to be approached with sensitivity, focusing on the benefits for women and their relationships. They need help to calibrate their consciences, and this study provides insight into the scope of the problem. Conscience formation, the data strongly indicates, is the real issue underlying the problem, and it is cause for concern. Please take some time to read it, and file it away for reference.
Here are some more findings from the study.
The study can be downloaded in full here.
Women who worship weekly are overwhelmingly likely to agree that faith is an important part of daily life:
97% of frequent worshippers ages 18-34 agree
95% of frequent worshippers ages 35-54 agree
85% of infrequent worshippers ages 35-54 agree
82% of infrequent worshippers ages 18-34 agree
Frequent church-goers ages 18-34 also show higher rates of participation in this Sacrament, as just over one-third (36%) have gone to Confession in the past year. By comparison, only 10% of infrequent churchgoers, ages 18-34, have received the Sacrament in the past year—the lowest percentage among all subgroups.
Women’s primary sources for learning about Church teaching (total sample):
72% Homily in Mass
55% Priests or other religious leaders
54% Memory of childhood lessons
40% The Catechism of the Catholic Church
36% Teachings from Catholic school
28% Church activities, not including Mass
26% Catholic news media
18% Classes about Catholicism
15% Non-fiction books, movies, or DVD’s
10% Encyclicals of Vatican documents
9% U.S. Bishops’ (USCCB) website or resources
7% Non-Catholic or secular news media
7% Catholic blogs
5% Fiction: popular books, movies, or DVD’s
4% Catholic celebrities, politicians,or public figures
1% Non-Catholic or secular blogs
2% Other (specified)
– Church bulletin/newsletter
4% None of these
Note: Multiple responses allowed so totals exceed 100%
On conscience formation:
Eighty-five percent of all women agree, 52% strongly, that dissent from Church teachings on sex, contraception, and reproduction is not incompatible with being a good Catholic.
Only 13% disagree, including just 6% who disagree strongly.
Seventy-six percent of those who attend church at least once a week say they can be “good Catholics” without fully accepting the Church’s teachings on sex, contraception, and reproduction.
By comparison, 93% of infrequent worshippers agree that being a “good Catholic” does not require them to accept the Church’s teachings on sex, contraception, and reproduction.
Why women reject Catholic teaching on contraception:
Q: “Why, specifically, do you not accept the Catholic teaching on contraception and family planning?
please select all that apply.”
53% Each couple has the moral right to decide which methods of family planning to use.
46% Couples have the right to enjoy sexual pleasure without worrying about pregnancy.
41% Natural family planning is not an effective way to prevent pregnancy or to space children.
28% Contraception is the only effective way that a couple can control how many children to have and when to have them.
28% I do not accept the church’s moral authority on the issue of contraception and family planning.
23% Family planning and contraceptive use are not moral issues.
19% Natural family planning is impractical or too difficult to use.
15% The Catholic Church has lost moral credibility to teach on matters of sex and reproduction because of the sexual abuse scandals in the church.
15% I do not think I can handle a large family.
1% I do not understand it.
3% Other (specified)
1% Extenuating circumstances
– I do not think contraception is morally wrong
– I do accept the Catholic teaching on contraception
Note: Multiple responses allowed so totals exceed 100%. Question answered only by women who reject, in whole or in part, Church teaching on family planning. It was not answered by women who said they accept the teaching (13%) or are unsure if they accept the teaching (6%).
Ways to learn more about Catholic teachings on contraception and NFP (total sample):
23% Testimonies from couples about the health and relationship benefits of NFP.
23% Studies that prove NFP is 97% effective in preventing pregnancy.
22% A doctor’s recommendation of NFP and its effectiveness.
22% Testimonies from couples on the effectiveness of NFP.
20% Information about why NFP is pro-woman (promotes better health and self-image and equality in relationships).
16% A homily from my parish priest or bishop explaining the Catholic teachings on contraception and family planning.
14% A homily from my parish priest or bishop encouraging couples to use NFP.
13% Medical information about forms of birth control that are abortifacient (prevent a newly conceived embryo from implanting and growing in the womb).
1% Other (specified)
* Unsure/do not understand the question
56% Iam not interested in learning more about Catholic teaching on family planning and contraception (allowed only this response).
Note: Totals exceed 100% because women were allowed to select multiple responses UNLESS they specified that they were “not interested in learning more.”
Full report here, in case you missed up there: What Catholic Women Think About Faith, Conscience, and Contraception
Stacy Trasancos, Ph.D. is a scientist turned homemaker raising seven children with her husband in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. She is pursuing a MA in Theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, and she is Editor-in-Chief at Ignitum Today and Catholic Stand, and a Senior Editor at Catholic Lane. She writes about popular science, dogmatic theology, and mountain life at her website.