We know that 86% of people in Croatia identify as Catholics, and we also know that a significant part of the population is in favour of using contraceptives and, to a lesser degree, the right to abortion. Thus, we can conclude that a certain proportion of Catholics not only acknowledge the importance of reproductive rights, but themselves use some of the methods of family planning.
However, the official Church doctrine has a clearly defined attitude to the function of human sexuality and it decidedly prohibits the use of modern contraceptive methods such as the pill and condom (not to mention abortion).
In order to explore to what extent the Church teachings reflect the daily lives and needs of its congregation and whether specific neoconservative organizations in our society really represent the voices and experiences of the faithful, we talked with Jon O'Brien, the president of Catholics for Choice (CFC), and Luca Badini Canfalonieri, director of the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.
While the Wijngaards Institute focuses on research in key areas of Christian theology where the official Catholic teachings and practice are in need of reform, CFC serves as a voice for Catholics who believe that the Catholic tradition supports a woman’s moral and legal right to follow her conscience in matters of sexuality and reproductive health. CFC also publishes the Conscience magazine which focuses on issues such as reproductive rights, feminism and public policies.
The faithful do not live in accordance with the views of the Church hierarchy
According to Pew Research Center (2015), only 8% of US Catholics consider contraceptives to be morally wrong, while as much as 76% of Catholics think that the Church should allow the use of contraceptives. What can we infer from the fact that a large number of the faithful do not abide by the official Church teachings? Are their lives filled with sin?
"It is indeed true," says O'Brien, "that the majority of Catholics around the world do not follow the dictates of the Catholic hierarchy on issues such as LGBTI rights or practices, reproductive health practices, or even in deciding to get a divorce when you are unhappily married. Here in the United States, 99% of sexually-active Catholic women use a method of birth control that the Bishops disagree with. Catholic women have abortions at the same rate as women of other faiths or no faith. The same is true globally. When I go into clinics in Uganda or Kenya, the women who are queuing up to have safe abortions or receive family planning services are Catholics."
But, he adds, if we define the “Catholic Church” not as a building in Rome, but as all of the faithful in the world who are united by faith, then we can easily see that these people are exercising their right to freedom of conscience on a daily basis, and freedom of conscience ought to be the final arbiter in decision-making within Catholicism.
"Following a well-formed conscience is exactly what you should be doing as a good Catholic. And that can lead people to use birth control, or have an abortion, or want their children to receive sex education. Sadly, the Catholic hierarchy does not respect our Catholic tradition and the importance of conscience. I think this is very sad, because the Bishops have failed to understand that the teachings they espouse are not received. It is not a matter of democracy, but rather a matter of common sense. There is a reason why Catholics do not follow the Bishops’ dictates on these questions. It is because they do not make sense to our lives lived as Catholics and as members of a community and a family when we have to make decisions about our welfare and our safety," claims O'Brien.
Luca Badini also warns that papal teachings are oftentimes based on traditional views that are obsolete if we take into account the available scientific insights, particularly those related to human sexuality. Thus we have to question the validity of the arguments and presuppositions underlying those outdated traditional judgments.
"Dialogue about the correctness of the official teaching is seen as unnecessary, even insolent; it is perceived as an attack, and so 'dissent' from it is branded as something negative and even treacherous. Avoiding real dialogue in turn makes it almost impossible for popes to recognize and admit past errors, and so they are incapable of revising them. This has been particularly evident with regard to the papal prohibition against contraceptives; indeed, it became one of the criteria used for selecting bishops worldwide. As a consequence, a large percentage of the current episcopal leadership is very reluctant to speak up about this issue," says Badini.
At CFC they emphasize that human sexuality – contrary to the official teaching of the Church hierarchy, which is exclusively male and fetishizes celibacy – is not simply a function of procreation. For example, the Talmud decrees that sexual pleasure should be guaranteed for both partners. Since Jesus was a Jew, we can imagine that he believed these teachings, suggests O'Brien, even though they were later forgotten.
"Plato and Socrates separated body and soul. As a result, we began to see the soul as something that is elevated and good, and the body as something that is failing and bad. This philosophy was picked up by Catholic teachers like Saint Thomas Aquinas, who saw sex as very negative and spirituality as very positive, rather than seeing these elements as one and the same, all created by God. That unitary view of body and soul is what we need to go back to in order to have a healthy view of human sexuality."
Are contraceptives morally acceptable?
The current, rather orthodox attitudes of the Catholic hierarchy to family planning have been greatly shaped by the encyclical Humanae vitae by Paul IV. (1968), which states that contraception is "intrinsically wrong" (with the exception of "natural" methods such as the Billings method). The encyclical was preceded by the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control, which concluded that contraceptives (including the then new method – the pill) were not morally unacceptable since it is "natural to man to use his skill in order to put under human control what is given by physical nature."
However, Paul VI. rejected the official report and accepted the minority report composed by few conservative theologians, who claimed the official teaching should not be modified.
O'Brien considers this a big missed opportunity, suggesting that such a turn could have had a great impact on women's lives, particularly those in developing countries, and on preventing the spreading of HIV/AIDS. But, it is likely that the pope feared if he modified his position on family planning, then the faithful might want to question some other official teachings, which was unacceptable.
"Humanae vitae states that as Catholics, each and every time you have sex, you must remain open to the possibility of becoming pregnant. You must remain open to the possibility of the transmission of life. Very few Catholics practice this belief. This teaching has probably done more to divide ordinary Catholics from the Church hierarchy than any other teaching. As Catholics in the global north, we gladly and safely ignore this teaching, while those in the global south suffer and die as a result of this worldview," he adds.
In preparation for the 50th anniversary of the publication of Humanae vitae, the Wijngaards Institute gathered an interdisciplinary task force of experts to reassess the ethics of using contraception from within the Catholic tradition. Their statement has been signed by more than 170 academics from different fields, and it was presented at the UN General Assembly in 2016.
The statement suggests, among other things, that Catholics can use contraceptives for a number of morally worthy purposes, one of which is family planning. Badini explains that in the 20th century Catholic moral theology has finally acknowledged that procreation is not an absolute goal of marriage to be pursued regardless of its consequences. It has also embraced the principle of "responsible parenthood" (Humanae vitae, §10) according to which couples may determine the number, spacing, and timing of their children taking into account their own physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, as well as their ability to provide for the health, education and growth of the children.
"Therefore, couples all around the world using contraceptives to plan and space their children are actually abiding by what Catholic theology sees as the fundamental moral requirement to be responsible parents. This is intuitive, and the reason why the vast majority of people worldwide do not see using contraceptives as a sin, but rather as an exercise of their moral responsibility."
Besides, adds Badini, as far as we know, there is no absolute divine command not to interfere with the biological laws of the generative process. "Any sort of medical intervention, from something as insignificant as taking pain-killers to something as consequential as performing cardiovascular surgery, affects probabilities – of healing, survival, death, etc. Furthermore, the decision not to intervene in natural processes also affects those probabilities, just as choosing to intervene does. Thus the moral question is not whether to alter the schedule of probabilities within natural processes, but rather whether, when, and how doing so is conducive to human flourishing and the flourishing of all creation."
Freedom of conscience and secular society
Given that "a peaceful march for life" is about to be held in Croatia (inspired by the rally protesting abortion held annually in Washington, D.C.), we asked O'Brien what is CFC's position on when life begins.
"I believe that life is present in the uterus and that an abortion is ending life in the uterus. Life is also present in a petri dish, but that does not mean that we equate what is present in the petri dish as a born person. I do not believe that the life that is present in the uterus has the same rights as a born person. Besides, it is a huge mistake to think that banning abortion would mean that abortion would not exist. I believe that it is very important to allow people the freedom to have abortions and to allow people the freedom to choose to not have abortions. That is the very essence of autonomy and freedom of conscience. Many people have different beliefs about ending life in the uterus. We should not force people to believe what we believe. They should make those decisions for themselves, in good conscience," says O'Brien.
As for the influence of the Church on politics and legislation, CFC advocates the separation of Church and state, that is, "freedom from religion and freedom of religion". According to O'Brien, the best model for a free, democratic and fair society is a secular state.
"In any society it is a genuine struggle to balance the rights and freedoms of one individual against another. People often feel that their freedoms are constrained or denied because another person enjoys certain rights or freedoms. When Europeans first came to the United States, many of them were religious people who were fleeing persecution from other religious people. As a result, the founding of the United States was premised on the notion that people would be free to practice any religion or practice no religion. This allows us all to have a free, secular space in which we can all live and respect one another’s different beliefs and opinions. I believe that this is the best model for society."