Every so often a study comes out and inspires one to think “Why hasn’t this been done before now?”. Recently, Mary Rice Hasson, J.D. along with Michele M. Hill, have published their preliminary report “What Catholic Women Think about Faith, Conscience, and Contraception”, in which they seek the answers to questions which many have assumed to be simpler than they are.
Hasson and Hill sought to find out:
- What it is that *Catholic women know about actual Church teaching on contraception.
- How many of those women would accept or reject those teachings once they were accurately presented.
- Why Catholic women reject Church teaching on these issues.
- For those who reject Church teaching, would they be willing to learn more about those teachings and if so, how.
824 women ages 18-54 voluntarily answered an online survey conducted by the polling company, inc./WomanTrend, Washington, D.C. The answers these women gave indicate that the issue at hand, whether Catholic women accept Church teaching on contraception or not, is more complex and nuanced than one might suppose. It’s easy to think that Catholic women fall into two categories – those who accept the Church’s teachings and those who do not. Hasson and Hill’s findings suggest that this is not the case.
“Instead, three groups emerge: “the faithful” (who fully accept the Church’s teaching), “the dissenters” (who completely reject the Church’s teaching), and the “soft middle” (who accept “parts” but “not all” of the teaching). ” (Hasson, 2)
It should not be surprising that the survey found a correlation between frequent sacramental practice and a higher likelihood of accepting Church teaching. What is important to note though is that of the 824 women surveyed, 72% of those women indicated that the weekly homily was the main source of their knowledge about Church teaching, yet 1/3 of women cannot accurately identify Church teaching on contraception and of that 1/3, half attend Mass at least once a week. Surprisingly and hearteningly, it is the 18-34 year old crowd (both frequent church-goers and infrequent) who are “more likely to have an accurate understanding of Church teaching”. (14) Overall, only 13% of Catholic women completely accept the Church’s teachings on contraception and 6% are unsure if they accept or reject the teachings.
Those women who reject (either wholly or in part) the Church’s teachings on contraception were asked to identify their reasons. Those reasons highlight a “broad confusion about the relationship between authoritative Catholic teaching, conscience formation, and moral autonomy.” (16) The other top two reasons were that couples have the right to enjoy sexual pleasure without worrying about pregnancy and the sad misperception that NFP (natural family planning) does not work.
The good news is that 44% of Catholic women are in what the researchers call “the soft middle”, meaning that they do not completely accept or reject Church teaching on contraception. Why is this a good thing? Because of that 44%, 39% indicate an interest in learning more about Church teaching and only 18% say that they do not accept all of the Church’s teaching on contraception because they do not accept the Church’s moral authority on contraception. This shows that Catholic women are receptive to Church teachings if they are presented clearly and accurately.
How would these women like to learn more? They are happy to tell you. 23% would like to hear couple testimonies about health and relationship benefits of NFP, another 23% want to see studies regarding NFP’s effectiveness and 22% would like to see a doctor’s recommendation of NFP and its effectiveness. Overall women were able to choose from 9 specific ways they would like to learn more about Church teaching on contraception. They could also indicate that they were not interested in learning more about Church teaching (56% chose this option).
I would like to have that 56% broken down a bit more – are they the ones that completely reject church teaching and simply refuse to even listen? Does that number also include the women who already accept all of the Church’s teaching on contraception and have heard all they need to know? Since the age-range of women surveyed was 18-54 years of age, does state in life have anything to do with openness to learning more? Thankfully, this was just the preliminary report and I look forward to reading the full report when it is released later this year.
This study is important to the Church for what it reveals: Catholic women are not being reached effectively. Teachers of the faith, both priests and laity must present Church teaching “frequently, positively, and without apology, from the pulpit and through Church ministries. But it also needs to be presented persuasively— something the Church has struggled to do effectively—and through new communications strategies including new media, social communications, peer ministries, and other new approaches. (20)
This study is so important for the Church. It’s important to know where the Church’s strengths as well as weaknesses are, so that the Good News may be taught even more effectively. Won’t you please share this study with your priest/bishop/apostolate coordinator?
Next week, we will take a good look at what the researchers suggest should be the next steps, as well as highlight some useful resources for priests and laity to utilize as they spread the beautiful teachings of the Church.
* “Catholic woman” is defined in this study as a church-going woman who either attends church frequently (once a week), or infrequently (less than weekly, but at least a few times a year)