Monday, February 13, 2012

The 98%: a follow-up post

Sorry for the late posting; I've had a busy day.

I wanted to revisit last week's wildly popular (thanks again, New Advent!) post regarding that misleading statistic that tries to suggest that 98% of all Catholics (or of all Catholic women of childbearing age) are totally fine with contraception. As we discussed, the question actually asks whether a woman has ever used contraception, not whether she now agrees with and lives by Church teaching; there's also no differentiation between women who were baptized Catholic and show up at a church every now and again on those CAPE occasions (Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Easter) and faithful Catholic wives and mothers who attend Mass every Sunday and live according to all of the Church's teachings.

If you recall, these were the questions I asked last week:
a) Do you attend Sunday Mass every week unless impeded by a serious reasons such as illness or the care of infants, etc.?
b) Do you participate fully in the sacramental life of the Church?
c) If you are married, are you validly married in the Church?
d) If the answer to a-c is "yes," do you presently accept the Church's teaching against artificial contraception and avoid its use in all circumstances?
Provided I haven't accidentally overlooked anyone's comment, I calculated the following responses:

"Yes" to all four questions, indicating acceptance of the Church's teaching against contraception by faithful Catholics: 48--or 49, if you'd like to count my answers, as well. :)

"Yes" to A-C, but "No" to D, indicating a rejection of the Church's teaching against contraception by Catholics who consider themselves to be otherwise faithful: 7

There were two respondents who said "Yes" to all but C because they are not married--but as unmarried Catholics they wished to indicate their full support for Church teaching against contraception. And it was pretty obvious that the two priests who responded (thank you, Fathers!) are fully supportive of the Church's teaching against contraception as well.

As I said, this is an unscientific survey. Blog readers in general are not a huge audience; Catholics who read this blog or came here from New Advent are probably a small percentage of American Catholics as a whole, and so on. Nevertheless, I'd like to see a scientific survey of Catholics who attend Mass each Sunday as to their attitudes about contraception, because I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that my responses aren't really all that far from the truth--that is, that while dissent regarding the Church's teaching against artificial contraception is certainly present at the parish level, it does not come close to involving 98% of those Catholics who actually bother to show up for Sunday Mass and to be involved in parish and sacramental life.

An experience I had with a former pastor might be noteworthy: this good priest would preach against contraception a few times a year (which is something I wish every Catholic pastor would do!), and each time he would mention the next Sunday that he had received a few complaints about it, either in person or by letter. He never had a massive walk-out of parishioners; he never mentioned receiving an overwhelming number of complaints; and I know this priest well enough to be certain that if at any time he even remotely suspected that some 98% of the married couples in the pews were dissenters regarding contraception he would have made it a prerogative to preach and teach about it every week until the situation improved. So I think that the narrative which suggests that American Catholics (especially those who attend the Ordinary Form) are all a bunch of contracepting dissenters is not the truth, and is, in fact, a potentially dangerous and damaging false impression.

Why do so many Catholics have that impression? I think that the media is partly responsible; they survey "Catholics" about birth control and fail to mention that most of the "Catholics" they are surveying haven't been to Mass in twenty years (with the possible CAPE exceptions). I also think that the decline in family size in the pews has created the impression--but bearing in mind that many Catholics (and non-Catholics) are marrying later than people used to, that more women seem to struggle with infertility problems, and that NFP methods are, indeed, a blessing to those families who have good reasons to use them, the decline in family size as seen in the pews tells us less than we think it does.

The important thing, I think, is that those of us Catholics who do take our faith seriously enough to accept the Church's teachings in all areas and to attend Mass weekly should realize that those who dissent regarding contraception may be present--but it's not a given that they wildly outnumber us. The reality may be the opposite, and in that case the opportunities for evangelization, faithful witness, and discipleship may be much more urgent and compelling than we even guessed.

UPDATE: Get Religion explodes that "98%" statistic once and for all. It meant even less than we thought it did. (Many thanks to the reader who sent the link!)


The Sicilian Woman said...

Whenever I see survey results, some of the questions that pop into my mind, especially having studied survey methods and been taught by a professional who has conducted various types of surveys for at least 25 years, are:

1) What was your sample? (Demographics, location)
2) What questions did you ask?
3) By what method did you ask those questions (phone, written, online, etc.)? The more anonymous the survey, the more likely you will get honest answers, particularly concerning very personal information.
4) What were the options for answers (dichotomous, multiple choice, scaled, ranked, closed, open-ended)?

And so on.

It takes little to give bias to a survey.

I can't say I see many couples in my parish with more than 3-4 children, but there is an NFP class held, it seems, at least every other month, and, according to our pastor, couples from other denominations have joined those classes at times.

L. said...

Erin, I didn't comment on your poll, because I didn't think my answers would fit the point you were seeking to made -- the one you ultimately made in this latest post.

It is certainly NOT true that 98% of devout, active Catholics disagree with the church's teachings on contraception. It is no surprise that "those of us Catholics who do take our faith seriously enough to accept the Church's teachings in all areas and to attend Mass weekly" agree that contraception is an intrinsic evil. Did you even need an informal poll to determine that?

But if you truly believe in the sacrament of baptism, then how would you describe "most of the 'Catholics' they are surveying [who] haven't been to Mass in twenty years," as you put it. Aren't they Catholic, too?

Inactive Catholics, dissenting Catholics, "cafeteria" Catholics, "serial sinning" Catholics....there is a common word there.

It's funny, I read a comment on another blog, disputing the fact that Obama got something like more than half of the Catholic vote, because clearly (the commenter said) no REAL Catholic would ever have voted for Obama, so he really got ZERO percent. One could similarly say that ZERO percent -- or perhaps a tiny percentage of devout folks who honestly struggle -- have ever used contraception.

Erin, you know where I stand on contraception, so I didn't bother responding to your poll. Plus, I'm not "validly married" to my partner, nor do I fully participate in the sacramental life of the Church.

But I go to mass weekly. I attend parish events and adult education groups. When my youngest son is confirmed this spring, I will have raised all three of my kids in the Church through what it considers their spiritual adulthood. Heck, I even sent them to a Catholic school when we lived in the U.S. for 4 years, and was on the school board.

You can call people like me "bad Catholics" (or "monsters of unchastity," "hobgoblins of harlotry," "venomous vampires of virulent vice" etc.), but what percentage of Catholics are we? I honestly don't know, but I've met enough people like myself over the years to believe that there are a lot of us, sitting shoulder to shoulder with you devout folks at mass every week. And if we didn't blab on blogs, you might never know who we are.

L. said...

...and in case you do want to include me in your data:

A) Yes, go to mass.
B) No, do not fully participate -- very active, but do not receive communion because I am married to a non-Christian who has no plans to convert.
C) No, see above.
D) No.

I will also say this: I don't go to church to argue, so a lot of my opinions never come up with my fellow parishioners. But when the subjects do arise, I never lie about being in dissent on some issues, and perhaps because of this, some people feel comfortable discussing their own doubts with me.

Based on my wide definition of the word "Catholic" and my unscientific personal experiences in conservative New England parishes, liberal parishes in San Francisco, and our current mixed one in Tokyo, I'd still say the 98% figure is a bit on the high side.

Anonymous said...

I can only speak for where I am [the Northeast, in an affluent Italian-Irish-Polish-Filipino-American-Cradle Catholic parish]...

The ninety-eight percent number is probably correct IMO, even among those who do attend Mass every week.

I do agree that many polls that we see in the media regarding Catholics are basically useless since they don't separate out those who are actually practicing their faith right now and those that were born Catholic, or were Catholic in the past.

Regardless, on this issue, I think that the ninety-eight percent number is right, even for those who attend Mass weekly. The proof is in the pudding. Look around at Mass at a parish like mine, most families have two kids, a few have three. Such family numbers, with a few exceptions which have always existed, just can't be explained any other way.

The teaching is still the teaching, so be it, but that is just my opinion on the poll number.

Ann Marie

Barbara C. said...

And among those who attend Mass regularly and still use contraception, I wonder how many of them use contraception not because they don't theoretically think the Church teaching is correct but their own personal fear outweighs their faith on this issue. I know that I that I personally struggled with that for a long time.

eulogos said...

It must depend what part of the country you are in. I had the experience of hostile disagreement from the DAILY MASS Catholics at one "worship site" of my territorial parish when I said something supporting the Church's teaching about contraception. (combination of 5 parishes, now using 3 "worship sites." ) The priest was in agreement with the people. These folks also believe in gay marriage, and that women should be allowed to be priests. These are the people who have gone to all the various classes given by the diocese for years-that is where they got these ideas. This is also the "worship site" where they add all the people who died in the previous year to the litany of the saints on All Saint's Day. When I suggested that some of them might not be in heaven, that one couldn't be sure none of them were damned and that most likely they were in purgatory and need our prayers, the priest said "Oh, I wouldn't say that." Everyone in that parish who dies, goes straight to heaven, isn't it amazing? So they hardly have to worry about an obviously rational thing like contraception.

I have no way of knowing if this kind of parish, or your kind, is more common. I hope your kind, but I really don't know.
Susan Peterson

eulogos said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charlotte said...

I never heard that CAPE one, Erin! Interesting! We always called them "Chreasters" - Christmas and Easter combined.

I, too, roll my eyeballs at the 95% or 98% or whatever statistic. I think it's mostly TRADS who claim that, though I am biased in thinking that. But it would be interesting to know. Unfortunately, I don't think we ever will and it might be better that way.

LarryD said...

Erin - here's another post that debunks/explains the 98% number:

It's long, but excellent.

Turmarion said...

L., your posts are good, but that's not why I'm responding. You say you "very active, but do not receive communion because I am married to a non-Christian who has no plans to convert." Now that in itself is no reason to be barred from Communion. I know many Catholics married to non-Christians (either "technically"--the spouse is unbaptized but raised in a Christian background, or literally--the spouse belongs to another religion or to none), and none of them are barred from Communion. I also am familiar with enough Canon Law to be able to say that "dispartiy of cult" (mixed marriage) is not of itself an issue here.

Earlier you said you're not "validly married". I don't know what you're referring to, and I won't pry, but a Christian can be validly married to a non-Christian, with permission of the Bishop. It's usually no problem, and once more, does not bar one from the Sacraments. Now if you got married outside the Church or if there was need of an annulment, that's a separate issue. However, it's usually possible to get such a marriage convalidated (or what they call in Latin sanatio in radice). This requires some paperwork, but is usually not too hard to do, and puts one in full "good" standing with the Church even if the spouse is non-Christian.

The details are of a complexity far beyond my meager abilities, but I'd suggest you contact your diocese and see about it.

In any case, even if the situation is not remediable, for whatever reason, I think it is a great sign of faith on your part to continue to be involved in the Church to the greatest extent you can and to raise your children in the faith. Kudos to you, and I'll keep you in my prayers.

L. said...

Thanks, Turmarion -- my marriage didn't qualify for the "disparity of cult" dispensation, and I'm okay with that. I think my opinions on contraception and sexuality also make me an outlier, and I'm okay with that, too. The fact that I'm happy in the contracepting cafeteria speaks volumes, but well-intended prayers from anyone are always appreciated.

And I think there's another category the informal poll missed: I know quite a few devout Catholics who have never used contraception themselves, but are perfectly okay with others using it. Surely, then, they can't be said to agree that it's an intrinsic evil.

Anonymous said...

Another category the informal poll may miss are Catholics who themselves accept, and desire to follow, Church teaching on contraception but cannot persuade their spouses to do likewise.

If you personally accept Church teaching but practice birth control ONLY because your spouse insists on it and you don't think it's worth breaking up your marriage and depriving your children of a parent over, can you legitimately answer "yes" to D? Or does that make you part of the alleged 98%?


eulogos said...


As a woman, if your husband gets a vasectomy or uses a condom after you have expressed your objection, you are not guilty of his action and you can have marital relations without yourself having comitted the sin of contraception.

Likewise a man whose wife uses a diaphragm or takes the pill or has her tubes tied against his objection, is not guilty of the sin of contraception when he has marital relations with her. He isn't obliged to snatch the diaphragm out of her hand or to flush her pills down the toilet.

You can't fool God, of course, so you can't actually agree with your spouse to do this but pretend only the spouse is doing it. God knows the heart.

You yourself cannot insert the diaphragm or put the pills in your mouth and swallow them without having comitted the sin of contraception, even if you are only doing it because your spouse wants you to. You have to say to your spouse, "I am not going to contracept. I don't want you to contracept, but if you do, I won't refuse to have relations with you."

I am fairly confident that this is the accepted standard moral advice on this issue.

Once you are off the pill you can begin to chart so you know when you are fertile, and when you are not. It can take a while for this to become normal when coming off the pill. That information might be useful in ending a stand off on this issue. Your husband may choose to use a condom when you know your are fertile and not the rest of the time. A lot of people use fertility awareness this way to avoid hormonal contraception for health reasons.

Susan Peterson

hiker said...

I would have added another yes, yes, yes, NO. And you can call me whatever you want but it is Almighty God who I am accountable too.

I would say the number of Catholics that dissent on the teaching are at least 75%.

Be careful about pointing out families with 1or 2 kids and assuming they use contraception. The largest family in our parish has 14 kids and she had her tubes tied. My brother has 5 and he got a vasectomy. Yet I know MANY families with 1 or 2 kids that use only NFP. It is nonsense to assume couples with 1 or 2 kids are using contraception. You have NO idea..