A Catholic Condom Conundrum

You’re in love.  You get married.  But you don’t want kids…at least not for awhile.  Maybe later.  Or maybe not at all.  But you definitely do not want kids now.

You and your spouse are devoutly Catholic or Christian evangelical, so you are anti-abortion.  You might also be anti-contraception, but that only changes the degree of the dilemma that you face.  Because if you really don’t want kids, if having a child would be an emotional or financial disaster or a threat to your health, or if it would disrupt your career plans…or for any other reason…then you and your spouse have a problem unless you are willing to abstain from all sexual relations until you are willing to accept the consequences of conception.

Even if you use a contraceptive method…condoms, pills, whatever…they are not 100% effective.  There is still some risk.  Of course, if you rely on the tried-and-failed “rhythm system,” the only method endorsed (but not really…see below) by the Catholic Church, your chances of conception are much higher…unless you are very, very disciplined at taking daily temperature measurements and cervical mucous readings.  And then, you must be willing to abstain for nearly half of the menstrual period anyway.  There are no statistics available on this, but I doubt if many couples can consistently maintain the necessary discipline to pull this off, and even if they do, the failure rate is about the same as for condoms or pills.  Here’s a sobering fact:  Over half of all unplanned pregnancies happen to women who are using a contraceptive method.[1]

The only 100% sure method of preventing conception is abstention.

If you roll the dice and lose, the only alternative to parenthood for people who will not consider abortion is to carry the fetus to term and give the baby away for adoption.  This subjects the woman to nine months of inconvenience and misery (yes, don’t say it isn’t) carrying an unwanted fetus, going through the pain of childbirth, and the emotional distress of giving up the baby.  Is it reasonable to expect a woman to accept such an outcome?  What about the man?  He suffers too, watching his wife go through this ordeal.  I suspect that not many couples do this, but I have been unable to find any relevant statistics.

I would guess that most couples in this predicament just accept the inevitable “blessing” (as the Church calls it) and cope with the disruption of their lives.  This is clearly what the Catholic Church advocates.  Personal wishes do not matter.  Procreation is the highest priority, in a world full of poverty, malnutrition, child abuse and neglect, not to mention environmental degradation, much of which is brought about by overpopulation.

The Catholic Church is not alone in forcing parenthood on reluctant couples.  Evangelical Christians have similar proscriptions against abortion and contraception.  There are organizations like Quiverfull[2] that openly advocate large families.

Despite these pressures, family size in the United States has declined from around 5 in 1890 to 3.76 in 1940 to 3.13 in 2007.[3]  Catholic families have also declined in size, and are only slightly larger than the national average.  It is pretty obvious that American Catholics have not attained this result by following Church doctrine.  The Catholic Encyclopedia[4] (CE) puts it this way:

“Since the primary end of the family is the procreation of children, the husband or wife who shirks this duty from any but spiritual or moral motives reduces the family to an unnatural and unchristian level.”

Those are pretty strong words.  If you use a contraceptive, or practice the Rhythm System, your marriage is “unnatural and unchristian.”  The CE goes on to say that the family is endangered by “the deliberate limitation of the number of children in a family. This practice tempts parents to overlook the chief end of the family, and to regard their union as a mere means of mutual gratification.”

Expressing love for your partner is apparently not sufficient reason to have sex.  Enjoying the act is nice, but unimportant.  It is the duty of Catholic couples to make babies, even if they do not want to.  The CE goes on to justify this opinion on “economic” grounds:

“Inasmuch as the average man will not put forth his full productive energies except under the stimulus of its responsibilities, the family is indispensable from the purely economic viewpoint.”

As a man, I find this statement more than a little insulting.  We are all lazy slobs who will only work hard if we are goaded by family responsibilities.  RUBBISH!

The Encyclopedia does not take an explicit position on abstinence by couples who do not want to have children, but it does make the following suggestion:

“[The Church’s] teaching on virginity, and the spectacle of thousands of her sons and daughters exemplifying that teaching, have in every age constituted a most effective exaltation of chastity in general, and therefore of chastity within as well as without the family. Teaching and example have combined to convince the wedded, not less than the unwedded, that purity and restraint are at once desirable and practically possible.”

The message is clear.  If you don’t want children, then you should practice “purity and restraint,” an obvious euphemism for abstinence. And it’s good for you!

What is the cost of raising a child these days?  For a couple living on the west coast of the US, it’s about $266,000.[5]  Given the current economic conditions, it is not surprising that many young couples find this prospect daunting, and may wish to postpone having children until their careers are established and their financial situation is stable.  But if their religion limits their choices, they must deny themselves the beauty and pleasure of sexual relations.

Of course, it is obvious that many Catholics are disobeying Church doctrine on contraception, and a surprising number are having abortions.  Of the 1.21 million abortions that were performed in the United States in 2008, 28.1% were performed on Catholic women.”[6]  Catholics make up about 22% of the US population (about 66 million out of a total US population of around 300 million).  This leads to the interesting conclusion that Catholic women are actually having more abortions per capita than the population as a whole.

Birth rates and family sizes in predominantly Catholic countries like France and Italy have also plummeted in recent years.  Are all those romantic French and Italians really abstaining?  I doubt it.  More likely, they are using contraceptives and/or having abortions.  In 2002, French women had over 130,000 abortions.  In Italy, the 2006 total was over 117,000.  Abortions per capita in western Europe are performed at a little more than half of the US rate.[7] The US rate is driven by a very high teen pregnancy rate, nearly twice that of England or Canada and eight times higher than the Netherlands or Japan.[8]  Most European countries have comprehensive sex education programs for their young people, resulting not only in lower pregnancy and abortion rates, but also much lower levels of STDs.[9]  Ignorance is obviously the problem with US teens, and the Catholic and fundamentalist/evangelical churches are the main obstacle to sex education in the schools.

According to official Catholic doctrine, anyone who has an abortion or even denies that it is gravely immoral “incurs an automatic sentence of excommunication.”[10]  Were the 428,000 Catholic women who had abortions in the US in 1996 all excommunicated? Surely, many of those French and Italian women who had abortions were Catholic.  How many were excommunicated?

Clearly, the Church is looking the other way. Despite all his progressive posturing, I have not heard a peep from the Pope on this. The policy seems to be similar to another one that we know very well: “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

******************************* References ****************************

[1] http://womenshealth.about.com/cs/birthcontrol/a/effectivenessbc.htm

[2] http://www.quiverfull.com/

[3] Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports. From Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2008.

[4] Catholic Encyclopedia under Family

[5] http://www.babycenter.com/cost-of-raising-child-calculator

[6] http://www.christianliferesources.com/article/sobering-statistics-on-abortion-1437

[7] http://www.newsmax.com/FastFeatures/abortion-rate-globally-US/2015/04/15/id/638599

[8] http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1705604,00.html

[9] http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=419&Itemid=177

[10]http://www.catholicplanet.com/articles/article78.htm

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