Many Catholics do accept church teaching
Judith Cox’s recent essay in The News-Sentinel regarding Catholics and contraception, though surely well-intentioned, contains a number of errors and ambiguities that need to be corrected or clarified.
While it is certainly true that a majority of Catholics do not accept Church teaching regarding the immorality of contraception, it is nowhere near the 99 percent indicated by Cox. In fact, a national poll taken earlier this year by Pew Research indicates that a little over a quarter of Catholics who attend Mmass weekly believe that the practice of contraception is immoral. While in the minority, this percentage still represents several million Catholics in this country.
Secondly, the Church’s teaching on the immorality of contraception did not arise in 1968 when Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae (on the transmission of human life), but rather represents the long-standing teaching of the Church for two millennia. Even Protestant reformers such as Luther and Calvin condemned contraceptive practices. In fact, not until the Anglican Lambeth Conference in 1930 did a major Christian body allow for the use of contraception by married couples in difficult circumstances. Just over three decades later, Western society experienced a sexual revolution facilitated largely by the use of contraception that has resulted in higher rates of premarital sex, out-of-wedlock births, adultery, divorce, sexually transmitted diseases and abortion.
Thirdly, in presenting the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) on the reception of Church teaching by the faithful or the census fidelium, the unarticulated presupposition of Cox’s argument is that “the People of God” exists somehow apart from and in contradiction to the “hierarchical” leadership of the Church. Pitting the Church as “the People of God” over and against the institutional hierarchy does not really make sense, since the institutional Church is not a collection of buildings and grounds but is itself made up of people: the bishops who, as successors of the Apostles, shepherd God’s people and teach with authority in matters of faith and morals.
In fact, the very document of Vatican II that speaks of the census fidelium speaks of it precisely in relation to the Church’s teaching authority, when it speaks of this “appreciation of the faith” guided by “the sacred teaching authority (magisterium).” The Gospel of Jesus has never been merely a matter of straw polls. In fact, one of the leading lights of the Second Vatican Council, the French priest Louis Bouyer, warned against such facile understandings of the sensus fidelium:
“The consensus. fidelium is something quite different from a public opinion that is manipulated and even prefabricated by a press which, even when it is not completely led off the track by its pursuit of the sensational, remains hardly or not at all capable of grasping the real import of the questions under consideration, or simply their true meaning.” These words were written in 1969, precisely in the wake of Humanae Vitae, and have proven to be prescient.
Finally, Cox makes no mention of methods of natural family planning (NFP) that the Church both recommends and teaches. NFP is an umbrella term for scientific methods of regulating conception based on daily observation and interpretation of the biomarkers of fertility in a woman’s body. With NFP, a couple can identify those days of the cycle on which conception is most likely to occur should they desire to achieve a pregnancy, or conversely, they the; can abstain from marital relations on those days when conception is possible should they desire to avoid a pregnancy. Such methods are taught throughout Fort Wayne and, according to several international studies, have a method effectiveness rate as high as 99 percent — which is comparable to the birth control pill.