There is something of a conundrum for Catholics and the Church when it comes to abortion, condoms, abstinence, and reproduction.
Conundrum: (noun) A confusing and difficult problem or question.
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 devout Catholics, so you are anti-abortion. You might also be anti-contraception, but that only changes the degree of the dilemma that you face. If you don’t want to get pregnant, if having a child would be a threat to your health, or an emotional or financial disaster, or if it would disrupt your career plans…or for any other personal reason…then you and your spouse must abstain from all sexual relations until you are willing to accept the consequences of conception. (All this in light of the fact that God loves abortion…)
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: About half of all unplanned pregnancies happen to women who are using a contraceptive method.
The only 100% effective method of preventing conception is abstention.
If you roll the dice and lose, the only alternative to parenthood for women 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 her partner? He suffers too, watching his wife go through this ordeal. Adoption is chosen by very few women. In 2014, only 18,000 children under the age of 2 were placed with adoption agencies. By comparison, there were about 1 million abortions.
Most couples in this predicament probably just accept the “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 their highest priority, in a world full of poverty, malnutrition, child abuse, and neglect, plus the continuing environmental degradation that is exacerbated by an ever-increasing world population.
The Catholic Church is not alone in forcing parenthood on reluctant couples. Evangelical Christians have similar proscriptions against abortion and contraception. Organizations like Quiverfull 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. (Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports. From Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2008). Catholic families have also declined in size, and are only slightly larger than the national average. It is clear that American Catholics have not attained this result by following Church doctrine. The Catholic Encyclopedia (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 strong words. If you use a contraceptive, and even if you practice the rhythm method, 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 a sufficient reason to have sex. Enjoying the act is 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? Around $270,000, and that doesn’t include college expenses according to this recent study by Investopedia. Given the current economic uncertainty, 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. According to a 2007 Guttmacher Institute survey, the abortion rate for Catholic women was 22 per thousand vs 18 per thousand for Protestant women. The groups that were the most likely to have an abortion were those affiliated with other religions or no religion at all, with abortion rates of 31 and 30 per thousand respectively, but they make up only 22 percent of the total. 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 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 about half the U.S. rate. The U.S. abortion 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. 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. Ignorance is obviously the problem with U.S. teens, and the Catholic and fundamentalist/evangelical churches are the main obstacle to sex education in the schools. Ironically, states that have mandates for teaching abstinence have the highest rates of STDs while those with no mandates have the lowest.
According to official Catholic doctrine, anyone who has an abortion or even denies that it is gravely immoral “incurs an automatic sentence of ex-communication.” Were the 428,000 Catholic women who had abortions in the U.S. 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 Church policy seems to be similar to another one that we know very well: “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Conundrums, it seems, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder, and if you aren’t looking, they disappear.
Bert Bigelow graduated from the University of Michigan engineering school, and then pursued a career in electronic systems and software design. He has always enjoyed writing, and since retirement, has produced short essays on many subjects. His main interests are in the areas of politics and religion, and the intersection of the two. You can contact him at email@example.com.