Contraception and Catholics: Quiet Disobedience

Kathleen Reeves

Catholics are assimilated into American culture, and Americans have an unequivocal relationship with contraception: we want it, we need it, we use it.

A Stanford blog addresses a question so obvious that it’s been, by this time, largely ignored: what do American Catholics actually believe about contraception? That is, do they use it?

The answer is yes. Catholics are assimilated into American culture, and Americans have an unequivocal relationship with contraception: we want it, we need it, we use it.

Catholics in America are a diverse group, practicing with various levels of orthodoxy, occupying various positions on the political spectrum, found at all socioeconomic levels. Unlike some brands of Christianity, Catholics in America are often a quiet bunch—they generally do not proselytize (at least in this country), they usually don’t keep their children segregated from the wider, “corrupting” culture, and their priests do not become wealthy TV personalities.

Then again, they’re not always quiet (see this week’s spectacle at Notre Dame). But today, there are so many Catholics in America that the ones who make themselves highly visible in situations like these—by showing hostility to anything that threatens to contaminate the Church’s true values, as they interpret them—are not representative of the greater American Catholic community.

Appreciate our work?

Rewire is a non-profit independent media publication. Your tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.


This community, as a Catholics for Choice report shows, began drifting from orthodoxy on the subject of contraception after the Vatican issued Humanae Vitae of 1968. Five years earlier, a papal commission on contraception had recommended that the Church hierarchy lift its ban on contraception. The Pope ignored this recommendation.

The Stanford post outlines Catholics’ waning adherence to the contraception ban: 44% of churchgoing Catholic women used artificial contraception in 1969, 75% in 1980, and finally:


The Center of Disease Control and Prevention 2002 National Survey of Family Growth revealed that 97% of American Catholic women over age 18 have used a banned form of contraception, which is the same percentage as the general population.


The Church’s ban on contraception is a matter of life and death in some parts of the world, as I’ve pointed out. But what’s the importance of it in America? Some Catholics never think about it. They break the rule, but the rule, they sense, is not that important.

But as this post points out, the failure in the sixties to make the contraception teaching more relevant has undermined the Catholic Church:

Women already had an unequal role in the church, and many stopped listening to priests on issues of sexuality and morality.


Indeed, the hierarchy’s distance from the experiences of American Catholics is exacerbated by the Catholic Church’s specific version of patriarchy. How does it feel as a woman (or as a man) to have a celibate man tell you about sexuality?

The writer goes on:


Ironically, Pope John Paul II’s fear that the Church’s authority on other matters would be undermined if the teaching on contraception was changed came true because it was not changed.


This is, and always has been, the central drama of the Catholic Church. It is grounded in ritual, tradition, and history. This is what makes it great, and it is also what cripples it. The Church has to walk a fine line between flexibility and inflexibility, both of which threaten to discredit it. The Catholic Church has changed—sometime after arresting Galileo, it acknowledged that the Earth does revolve around the sun. It can change, and I believe that it will change on contraception. It just needs a little help getting there.

Load More