At 16, I left the Church. Before that time, religion had been a constant presence in my life: Sunday morning mass, the after school Catholic program and all of the sacraments save confirmation and marriage. But as a teenager, I began to realize that there was little room in my Chicago parish for disagreement with Catholic doctrine or its social implications. The shame and guilt that homilies imposed on my emerging social values led to my decision to leave the church and continue my faith as a shopping cart Catholic. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a shopping cart or cafeteria Catholic is a pejorative term for someone who chooses to practice certain aspects of the Catholic doctrine and dissents from other Church teachings, often including their views regarding gay marriage, divorce, birth control and contraceptives.
In the past few weeks, there has been a media storm surrounding President Obama’s mandate for free contraceptive coverage and the rising Catholic opposition in response. Requiring Catholic institutions and hospitals to cover birth control was against religious freedom, Catholic bishops insisted. As a matter of compromise Obama reworked the policy so that insurers—and not Catholic employers—would be required to pay for birth control. Nevertheless, Catholic Church officials have referred to this redistribution of cost as a “gimmick.” At the core, it seems the Catholic Church has changed its mind about what it wants. Recently, the Blunt Amendment, which would have granted all employers the right to deny any employee health coverage on the basis of religious grounds, was voted down 51-48 in the Senate. Yet now, instead of pushing for exemption from the mandate, Catholic bishops seem set on overturning the mandate altogether. To summarize, a win for the Catholic Church appears to be a complete denial of birth control coverage.
The Catholic Church has remained firm on this stance, regardless of dissent from many of its followers. In July 1965, five years after the birth control pill entered the market, a Gallup poll surveyed Catholic Americans on whether they believed the Church would ever approve of birth control; 61 percent said yes. In 1968, however, Pope Paul VI released the “Humanae Vitae,” condemning contraception by saying, “Man, growing used to contraceptive practices, may lose respect for the woman and come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.” One month after the 1968 release, a new Gallup poll found only 28 percent of American Catholics supported the Vatican’s position.
Some historians attribute the declining Vatican authority to their antiquated anti-birth control doctrine and women’s refusal to listen to it. By the 1970s, some studies reported that over two-thirds of Catholic women had used the pill. A recent study claimed that 98 percent of Catholic women use birth control. Although this statistic has been contested as misrepresentative, a more conservative estimate, based on the same pro-choice Guttmacher Institute survey, puts the percentage of Catholic women using artificial birth control from 2006 to 2008 between 83 and 87 percent.
The “Humanae Vitae” still stands today as the definitive declaration against birth control. The Vatican’s characterization of birth control as a demonizing tool to satisfy selfish enjoyment seems protective at best and patronizing towards women at worst. Even thought the Humane Vitae was written from a male perspective, it puts little faith in the goodness of man to use contraceptive technology to enact better family planning.
The argument that Catholic women should not use birth control because it is an unnatural form of contraception seems hypocritical. There are several “unnatural” medical procedures the Church has not denied, like heart surgery and organ transplants. The representation of reproductive health care as an elective rather than mandatory health service is reflective of a misunderstanding of the fundamental right of a woman to control her body, her fertility and ultimately her family’s wellbeing. In response to my frustration with the Catholic Church, my friend reminded me that, though faith can be a guiding force in our lives, the Church is a human institution prone to the same mistakes and misinterpretations of which all of us are culpable. With that in mind, I believe that it would be a great service to the Catholic community for the Church to give its followers the space to disagree with and re-evaluate Church doctrines. The Catholic Church could benefit from having more faith in its people.
Kristen Lee is a Trinity junior who is spending the Spring in Udaipur, India and Beijing, China through the Duke Global Semester Abroad Program. Her column runs every other Monday.