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The Catholic Church and Contraception: Revolution...or Evolution?

October 14, 2014

The wording is far from clear and it's only a mid-term report, but the statement issued this week by the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome is being described as an "earthquake" by Church liberals and a "betrayal" by Church conservatives. So, is the Catholic Church shifting its position on contraception?

From my uninformed vantage point, the statement does not appear very radical with respect to the treatment of gays or divorcees, and the same applies to the nuanced position taken by the Bishops on contraception. To the contrary, it all seems highly tentative, but after decades of rigid orthodoxy, equivocation can sometimes presage a revolution. So is the Catholic Church about to change its position on birth control... or not?

This week's mid-term report emphasized "the need to respect the dignity of the person in the moral evaluation of the methods of birth control." But what does that really mean? As I am not member of the Catholic Church, I am reluctant to read too much into a statement that is so blatantly equivocal.

In truth, I have always been perplexed by the Church's opposition to modern methods of contraception. While some members of the Catholic faith may believe that husbands and wives should make no effort to prevent an unwanted pregnancy, that's an extreme view, as is the view that sexual intercourse, even among married couples, has no legitimate purpose other than procreation. The Church itself has long approved "natural" family planning, otherwise known as the rhythm method. In doing so, the Church appears to endorse the idea that a woman should be able to space or limit her pregnancies. If so, why shouldn't a woman be able to use a more reliable method to achieve the same result? Good question.

If public opinion polls are to be believed, Catholic women -- in most parts of the world -- have not accepted the Church's view that use of a more efficient method of contraception is somehow morally wrong. Indeed, polls suggest that the vast majority of Catholic women in the U.S., just like non-Catholic women, rely upon a modern method of birth control at some point in their reproductive years.

Yet, despite these poll findings, large numbers of politicians in this country -- whether reliant on Church teachings or not -- are expending an awful lot of moral and political energy on making it harder for women to access a modern method of contraception. The U.S. House of Representatives is still bent on trying abolishing Title X, the federal program that supports family planning services for low-income households, while several state legislatures have slashed state support for family planning.

Some of this drive to slash funding for family planning may be driven by a misdirected anti-abortion zeal, rather than strict opposition to modern methods of birth control, but the practical result is to boost the number of unplanned pregnancies and, by implication, the number of abortions. Once again, the logic escapes me, particularly as numerous studies have shown that cutting family planning actually boosts aggregate government spending, because of the increased outlays for Medicaid.

If the Vatican does reverse its position on birth control, it may have very little impact on the percentage women in this country who elect to use a modern method of contraception. And the same is true in Europe and in many parts of Latin America. But in a few places, like the Philippines, the Church's opposition to birth control has proven to be a real deterrent, and a reversal could ultimately lead to a substantial increase in contraceptive usage.

In all likelihood, the Vatican's position on contraception will evolve slowly, but if the Church suddenly shifts its position on birth control, it will be interesting to see how it would affect the ongoing legal challenges to federally mandated coverage of contraception by employers. If Catholic employers continue to object to birth control even though the Catholic Church ceases to, would the employer's action still constitute the legitimate exercise of religious freedom? Or in the heavily nuanced words of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, would the employer "need to respect the dignity of the person in the moral evaluation of the methods of birth control"?

Stay tuned.

This op-ed by Population Institute President Robert Walker originally ran on October 14, 2014 on The Huffington Post

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