One Size Doesn’t Fit All

In the midst of the wall-to-wall press coverage of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the U.S. last week, The New York Times paused to note that many American Catholics pay little heed to papal authority, and instead bestow on the pope a particularly American commendation: they'd love to sit down and chat with the man, Catholic to Catholic. However homey the image, a stained-glass rendition of the favored American method of choosing a president (sans beer), the Times also pointed out, in explaining the lack of official Church data on how Americans really feel about the authority of this or any pope, that the Church is not a democracy. And, despite how nonchalantly many Americans speak about the relevance of the Vatican on their lives, the effect of a hierarchy headed by a man who built his career on opposition to liberation and feminist theology is real, and renders liberal or pro-choice Catholics today dissenters criticizing doctrine from outside the Church.

While Benedict pointedly neglected to address the issues those dissenters press on – the bans on contraception, condom use, gay and lesbian rights, and ordination of women – the unbending position of the Vatican was made clear during a 60,000-person mass at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, where he reminded the throngs of faithful that obedience as a Catholic is non-optional.

"Authority. Obedience. To be frank, these are not easy words to speak nowadays, especially in a society which rightly places a high value on personal freedom," he told the crowd, continuing to cite the scriptural lesson that "true freedom" comes from turning from sin, from "self-surrender" and "losing ourselves": an emphasis on hierarchy and submission more common to fundamentalist Christianity and orthodox doctrine across denominations than within the heterogeneous Catholic church itself.

It's also an unsubtle reminder that, however much American Catholics may disdain the 40-year old order of Humane Vitae — that "each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life" — following their own consciences on matters of artificial contraception is still an act of rebellion.

An immediate outpouring of dissent greeted the document in 1968, when 600 theologians protested the ruling, Rosemary Radford Ruether, a feminist theologian at the Pacific School of Religion, recalled on a conference call convened by Catholics for Choice to commemorate the document's fortieth anniversary. These theologians, she explains, were responding to the real consequences of Natural Family Planning — the only method of birth control the Church had allowed since 1930, when it banned condoms and diaphragms in a renewed emphasis on Augustine's anti-contraception teachings — in Catholics' family life, where the anti-contraceptive emphasis "almost began to seem the point of being a Catholic." As representatives of lay Catholic couples testified to the 1966 Catholic Commission on Birth Control, the pressures of following NFP, and abstaining during infertile periods, led to great marital discord for Catholic couples. The priests on the Commission were shocked by the experiences of the laity, and voted overwhelmingly to recommend that birth control be allowed for married couples. A small group of anti-contraception dissenters created a second "minority report" for the pope, calling the Commission's conclusions threatening to the Church's authority, as the Church could not admit to having "so wrongly erred during all those centuries of history." Four years later, it was this dissenting point of view that was reinforced in Humanae Vitae.

Today 97% of sexually active Catholic women use some form of contraception at some point, and, Radford Ruether says, many Catholic priests don't press the issue, considering it a "teaching that has not been received" by the people. Indeed, in 1974, 83% of Catholics said they disagreed with Humanae Vitae, and in 1999, according to the National Catholic Reporter, 80% of Catholics said they believed they could practice birth control and remain "good Catholics" (presumably leaving the remaining 17% guiltily disobedient). But despite this 40-year disconnect, which many theologians agree has led to greater skepticism about Church infallibility than acceptance of contraception ever could have, calls to liberalize the doctrine are repeatedly shot down with what theologian Anthony Padovano calls "incredibly inflated language," such as Pope John Paul II's assertion that questioning the ban on contraception was equivalent to questioning the holiness of God.

How this plays out in day-to-day life, explains Mary Hunt, of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, is that many Catholic women who approach their priests about contraception are given personal exemptions, while the same priests or bishops continue to preach against it in public. "Many Catholics are disgusted by the duplicity, or at best they're confused," said Hunt. There is "little evidence that those who believe contraception is healthy, good, natural and holy, as I do, have any input into Catholic theology."

Or, if they have a vote, it's one that can only be used once, in leaving the church. "The Catholic hierarchy holds its power," says Hunt, "and laypeople, many of them women, are walking away." Or, as Daniel Maguire, a professor of Moral Theological Ethics at Marquette University who laments that the public face of the Church excludes dissenting theologians and laity, jokes, "The current teaching of Catholic bishops is the making of Unitarians." On the eve of the Pope's visit, Catholics for Choice issued a publication studying the full impact of the contraceptive ban, Truth and Consequences: A Look Behind the Vatican's Ban on Contraception (PDF).

Perhaps the exodus of those Catholics who feel strongly about reproductive health and rights explains the sometimes confusing poll numbers attached to American Catholicism. For all that people obviously reject Catholic hierarchical teachings in practice, and tell pollsters the Church is "out of touch" on modern issues, there's a conflicting rise of believers who say they support the traditionalist path Pope Benedict XVI represents. According to a poll conducted by The Washington Post, over the past five years, the percentage of Catholics who supported modernized doctrine from the Vatican has dwindled from 66% to 45%, and those who wanted the pope to "emphasize Catholicism's traditional teachings and customs" rose from one-third to one-half.

Maybe that rise in appreciation for tradition, even among believers who are flouting the doctrine, is because the impact of Vatican teachings is far less consequential in the U.S. than in developing nations where the Catholic hierarchy has a heavy hand in public policy, hampering condom distribution in Africa, emergency contraception availability in South America, and family planning options for women in countries with high rates of maternal mortality. In Yankee Stadium, the pope's words on obedience may be a plea to a rich nation, but elsewhere, it's an enforceable demand.

"The tragedy is that those of us in the Global North can circumvent any restrictions on contraception," says Catholics for Choice President Jon O'Brien, reflecting a Vatican recognition that they've "lost the battle for our hearts and minds." Instead, the Vatican has taken their argument to the level of global public policy at the U.N., and exerts its influence most immediately on the developing nations of the Global South. There, says Mary Hunt, "Anti-contraceptive theology, implemented in public policy, results in a lack of available, affordable birth control, and this plays a significant role in [maternal] deaths" — even as vast majorities of Latin American Catholics, including 87% of Colombian Catholics, 84% of Mexican Catholics, and 81% of Bolivian Catholics, believe you can use contraception and still be a good Catholic.

Perhaps a greater awareness among the majority of Catholic laity who disagree with Vatican teaching on contraception – whether they voice that disagreement in words, with their feet, or through the quiet example of their private lives – of how such "irrelevant" teachings play out in the lives of their poorer sisters, would make the issue of Vatican authority relevant again. It certainly is for those who don't have the freedom, "true" or otherwise, to disregard an authority that directs the healthcare they can receive.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact

  • invalid-0

    First, I’m not Catholic and do not understand why any woman would willingly subject herself to this oppression be it Catholic or Southern Baptist. Personally, I believe and know there is a god/goddess but I also personally believe and know that religion is nothing but patriarchy created by MEN for MEN and to the advancement of MEN. In using the generic term MEN, I DO NOT mean women as women have never been given a voice despite the fact that WOMEN CREATE LIFE. Have you all ever wondered why it is HUMANkind was supposedly created out of one MAN but it is WOMAN who has given birth to every living creature on earth since? Doesn’t make a lot of sense does it?

    Unfortunately, the Pope and all his bishops and priests, etc. being men, they will never have to face an unwanted or a doomed (miscarriage) pregnancy. If women were given some voice in the running of the Catholic Church, maybe that would be different, but we all know how much women’s voices are heard in the church…NOT!

    I am a married woman who has experienced two miscarriages of very wanted pregnancies. After my second miscarriage, I realized it was destroying me mentally and decided that I never wanted to try again and my husband supported my decision wholeheartedly. Should we be doomed now to NEVER having sex because the Pope says its bad to use birth control? Or should I be FORCED to keep trying despite the toll the miscarriages have taken on me mentally and physically just because I am a woman and according to the Pope as a woman it is my lot in life to do so? Again, doesn’t make a lot of sense does it.

    Birth control is a very PERSONAL decision which should not be made for religious reasons. Despite my views on religion, I choose to use natural family planning because I don’t like hormones or any invasive BC method. That doesn’t mean the rest of you should have to choose the same just because I do. Nor should any woman have her health care decisions dictated by some old man who has never been in love, had a child, experienced a partner who had a miscarriage, etc. The man is out of touch with reality and has absolutely no business preaching to the masses about something he has absolutely no idea what he is talking about.

  • invalid-0

    I see bumper sticker occassionally which say, “Don’t like abortions? Don’t have one.”

    I’m not Catholic but the same principle applies: Don’t like Catholicism’s teachings? Don’t be a Catholic.

    On “reproductive health” sites I always see comments about pro-lifers trying to force their religion/opinions/misogyny down people’s throats. It’s time for you to live up to your tired mantra. If you don’t like the teachings of a church, then don’t go there. It’s that simple. Quit trying to change churches to fit your beliefs.

  • invalid-0

    Gladly, Michael, as soon as the pope keeps his paws out of South American women’s reproductive decisions. And its pedophile priests away from kids.

  • invalid-0

    I was raised catholic and the church’s policies on birth control, the rights of women, etc., are exactly the reasons why I left. So yes, I’ve stopped being catholic because I don’t like their teachings.

    However, that same church that I left has a ridiculous amount of influence on the public, governmental policies of many, many countries around the world. And those women, even if they decide to leave the church, still have to follow the church’s teachings on reproductive rights (or the lack thereof) because the church controls their politicians and their government.

    It’s exactly the same sort of thing that religious right wingers would like to do here, but we’ve so far been lucky enough that they haven’t been able to. So, as long as those organizations keep trying to legislate their beliefs and obstruct the choices of people whoe don’t belong to their organization, then we’ll keep working against them and speaking out.

  • invalid-0

    I just had a discussion with a Catholic friend who is one of the 17% who do agree with the Humane Vitae and was shocked that she could hold such a view, especially one that, as you note, has such disastrous consequences in the global south where I grew up. Not only does it increase maternal mortality (1 in 16 Sub Saharan African women dies as a result of pregnancy or childbirth), but it has an immeasurable effect on the AIDS epidemic. The majority of new infections are married women who contract AIDS from their husbands. For the church to discourage contraception and fight against including it in foreign aid is about the most immoral stance I can think of.

  • invalid-0

    As a recovering Catholic, I have spent a lot of time considering the church’s stand on reproductive rights. An extremely patriarchal organization, the church has spent much effort to keep women subjugated. I think much of this dates all the way back to the time when early Christianity had to undermine the primarily matriarchal pagan religions. Consequently, women and their sexuality have been equated with sin. Remember, Catholicism, as far as I know, is the only religion that has a god resulting from a virgin birth. It is also important to note that the only other woman who was important to Jesus Christ was a “reformed” prostitute.
    I agree with the above poster who advocated for people who disagree with the teachings to leave the church. The great theologian Joseph Campbell made the point that the last two thousand years created a departure with man’s constant revamping of “religion” to accommodate his needs as a society. it is time for all of our major religions to be replpaced with or evolve into ones that can serve to guide mankind in the new millenium.

  • invalid-0

    American Catholics have always tended to be “cafeteria” Catholics. They follow what they like and ignore what they don’t.

    But Catholic doctrine is not fixed in stone on other issues. The Lutherans won the coin toss a couple years ago when the two churches agreed that one is saved by faith alone, from which good works flow [the Lutherans had maintained one was saved by faith alone; the Cathloics by faith and good works. The Lutherans had always maintained, though, that if you had faith, you would, of course, do good works, as a result.] The Catholic Church changed its centuries old position on that.

    About 40 years ago the Catholic church agreed Galileo was right, that the earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around, resolving that 350 year-old conflict.

    Recently the pope decided there was no limbo, something that, for centuries, Catholics had been taught existed.

    Biblically, there is no justification for considering abortion as murder. If you read Exodus 20, you’ll see the fetus is considered property, not a person. In it, if men beat a pregnant woman and she loses and eye, they lose an eye, but if they beat a pregnant woman and she miscarries, they pay a fine, which is clearly the penalty for damage to property. So the Catholic church’s opposition cannot be said to flow directly from scripture.

    So why should the Catholic church’s doctrine towards women’s issues be immutable or so much harder to change? I feel it’s harder to get change on these issues because it gets to the heart of who controls a woman’s body (and particularly who decides with whom she can have sex): the woman or who the church says. [This is the same issue at the heart of the Texas pologamists case, as well.]

    Although the faith versus faith and good works issue was, theologically, a big one, the other issues did not involve power over living people. Abortion, contraception, women’s ordination – all these issues do.

    And since dissent on other issues is obviously allowed, the Catholic church should allow considered debate on women’s issues when a question as basic as is one saved by faith alone or by faith and good works is. Their failure to do so will either result in a continuation of the “cafeteria” approach which includes a necessary weakening of papal and church authority, or a continuing exodus from the Catholic church. Sounds like a lose-lose proposition for women and the Catholic church.

  • invalid-0

    and everyone in Africa is Catholic, RIGHT?

  • invalid-0

    I wonder why there are no similar complaints about what Judaism teaches about pork.

  • invalid-0

    What I have a problem with is the fundamental dishonesty about NFP that usually Catholic NFP supporters push to married couples.

    What they don’t tell you NFP requires long periods of abstinence when the woman is most fertile. The pro-NFP camp (CCLI, etc.) like to tell couples that this is a good time to reconnect without sex. The truth is that couples become obesessed with it. This is the time of the month when both partners, especially the woman, want sex. Not being able to have sex leads to frustration and marital discord.

    The second lie is that NFP is “as effective as the pill.” They show you the books with the “textbook” cycles. What they don’t tell you is that if the woman is abnormal in any way that NFP becomes abstinence. While that abstinence is a very effective way of avoiding pregnancy, is isn’t realistic for married couples to abstain from sex for long periods of time.

    All in all, this theology about sex is based on two flawed ideas. First is that women have little or no sex drive. Women aren’t supposed to mind that they can’t have sex when their body most wants to. In fact, NFP supporters claim they are supposed to enjoy it because they don’t have to have sex. The truth is that most women love sex. The second untruth is that if a couple wants sex, then there is something wrong with their marriage. The truth is that if a couple wants sex, then there is something right with their marriage. Look at all the couples complaining about “sexless marriages.” None of these are healthy or happy marriages.

    Finally, there is an obsession with children, yet there is little concern for the welfare of any individual child. It’s all about quantity over quality. Not all couples who want to limit family size are selfish. Most have good reasons to know why it would not be in the best interest of the family to have another child. Many parents are stretched thin with the number of children they already have. A parent knows their capabilities a lot better than religious leaders