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Contraception a baby among church's sins: new encyclical out of step with tradition.

It is beyond my professional competence to evaluate the theological arguments in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor. As a social scientist who has studied the attitudes and behaviors of American Catholic laity and parish clergy on birth control, I find it difficult to expect the encyclical will change many of their minds, The crisis in the church which Humanae Vitae engendered will continue.

It seemed to me, even before the new encyclical, that it might be useful to reconstruct as best one can the history of the church's response to the contraceptive revolution, not so much looking to the new methods as to the new demographic situation that made birth control a serious problem for the church.

During the "celebrations" of the 25th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, some strange bedfellows emerged to praise Pope Paul VI's encyclical: Peter Hebblethwaite, for example, in this newspaper, and Michael Novak in Crisis.

The latter admits he has changed his mind (perhaps for the last time; he seems to have abandoned every other position he once held) because when he looks around at the "progressive couples I used to know ... I don't see the marital bliss or sexual balance or even sexual health whose arrival I used to anticipate once progressivism would finally take hold."

To say the least, such an argument is based on an interesting logic.

None of the celebrants, however, seem to have troubled to inquire about the social and demographic history of contraception in the Catholic community. Nor has there been any effort to understand how the problem arose and how Catholics have responded to it. It is, nonetheless, possible through the use of survey data from 30 years ago to reconstruct some of that history and understand the nature of the crisis it created in the Catholic community - an aggregation of people somewhat larger than the progressive couples Michael Novak used to know.

The declining infant mortality rate created the birth control issue. Until the middle of the last century in parts of Western Europe and until the beginning of the present century in the rest of Europe, unlimited fertility was not a problem because infant mortality diminished the number of children who would live to be adults.

More than seven pregnancies were required to produce two adults who would replace the parents in the population. Moreover, children were a substantial economic asset in an agricultural society because they were potential workers on the family farm.

But when elementary health measures brought down infant mortality (and maternal death) rates, a woman could easily produce anywhere from eight to 12 children, depending on her diet, health and the age of her marriage. This change, which demographers call the demographic transition, happened almost overnight as human history goes. At the same time, large migrations to the city were taking place and eventually turning children from an economic asset to an economic cost of large proportions.

People knew of ways to control fertility (infanticide, abortion, coitus interruptus) and have used them during previous times when there were too many children and too little food. While the local clergy may have condemned these practices (or perhaps merely ignored them), the church hardly saw them as a matter for serious international concern, even should the means of transportation and communication have been available to lay down an international policy.

Troubling the laity

As John T. Noonan observed in his classic book on the subject, French Catholics, among the first to be faced with the problem, responded with coitus interruptus (and, it would seem, the invention of the condom). Several times the French hierarchy secretly asked Rome for advice on the problem. Each time they were told not to trouble the consciences of the laity.

St. John Vianney, the Cure of Ars, in his conferences for confessors, repeated the advice, often in fierce language. Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical on marriage, written precisely at a time contraception was widespread in France - and he knew it to be so because of the questions of the French bishops - said nothing on the subject.

It is hard to believe this kind of response did not represent the wisdom of previous practice. The church at that time could not have suddenly acquired a horror of troubling the consciences of the laity. Rather it was probably following its traditional pastoral procedures, perhaps reinforced by the attitude on marriage matters of St. Alphonsus Liguori.

It is not absolutely clear how this wisdom was abandoned between Leo XIII in Arcanum (1880) and Pius XI in Casti Connubii (1930); between the Cure of Ars warning against troubling the conscience of the laity and Cardinal George William Mundelein ordering his priests in the 1930s to question everyone about birth control who had been away from confession for more than six months. By the mid-1930s, priests in the United States, Ireland, England and Canada (at least) had moved from not troubling the consciences of the laity to troubling them as much as possible.

Noonan suggests that Jesuit Father Arthur Veermersch, who drafted Casti Connubii for Pius XI, insisted on including the passage on contraception in part because he felt a response' was necessary to the Anglican Lambeth Conference's tolerance for birth control and in part because he feared that many priests were not enforcing the doctrine in the confessional. It would appear the fateful words were added to the encyclical at the last moment.

Perhaps the reason for the reversal was that by the early third of the 20th century the demographic transition had affected so many countries that contraception seemed to have become universal. Nonetheless, it might have been useful if the Pope had been able to listen to the practical experience of those priests who were reluctant to trouble the consciences of the laity.

It would seem that in southern European countries the church's condemnation of birth control was not and is not taken seriously by either clergy or laity. The wisdom of the Cure of Ars seems to have prevailed. However, in northern Europe it surely was taken seriously - from which it does not follow that it was ever effectively enforced.

There are only impressionistic and anecdotal data about clerical behavior in the United States between the First World War and the Second Vatican Council. My impression is that, with some notable and noisy exceptions, most of the parish clergy avoided preaching on the subject and handled it gingerly and sympathetically in the confessional.

Cardinal Mundelein's order was apparently ignored by most Chicago confessors. However, the wandering missionaries (especially Redemptorists) and retreat masters periodically stirred up all kinds of trouble in the consciences of the laity.

After hearing in the seminary in great detail the arguments against birth control, we were given a way out in confessional practice - almost as a footnote. If one partner insisted on intercourse in which contraceptives were used, the other partner might consent for the good of the marriage, so long as s/he did not initiate the lovemaking interlude but only passively accepted it.

We were not to preach this conclusion and indeed should only tell the laity about it in the confessional and extract a promise of secrecy from them. In a complicated fashion we did not understand - especially since we had not heard of his conferences - this approach was an invitation to return to the wisdom of the Cure of Ars.

When you say "passive," someone asked, do you mean the partner cannot enjoy the lovemaking. The professor responded with something like, "You gotta be kidding".

"That's the end of the game," I remember saying after class. "It's finished."

I have no way of knowing how many priests actually used that escape hatch. Only in retrospect do I understand how ingenious it was, given the intensity of the anti-birth control sentiment in the church at that time. I suspect we didn't realize how wide the escape hatch was.

By the middle 1960s, in the National Opinion Research Center study of American priests, 67 percent of the respondents would not refuse absolution to laypeople practicing birth control. Five years later, after Humanae Vitae, the overwhelming majority (87 percent) would not do so. Sixty percent flatly rejected the birth control teaching. The church's experiment in troubling the consciences of the laity had failed.

It therefore appears that for reasons of demographic transition, contraception became a major problem in the church only in the early years of this century and ceased to be a problem for the laity and the lower clergy by the late middle years(1970).

I am not saying the church changed its teaching; it did not. I am saying the church in the parishes returned to the practices of John Vianney. I doubt that all the encyclicals in the world could cause another reversal.

Nor am I saying that this practice is the way things ought to be. I am merely saying as an empirical scholar that it is the way they are and are likely to continue to be.

|You know about that?'

I will also confess to being furious when I read Noonan's book. My teachers had lied to me because they had not told the whole truth. Perhaps they did not know it. I remember citing Noonan to apostolic delegate Archbishop Jean Jadot and pointing out that Leo XIII had ignored contraception in Arcanum. He smiled, "Ah, you know about that encyclical, do you?"

Meanwhile, what was happening among the laity? There is a myth that at one time the good, pious laypeople did not practice family limitation, but had large families and trusted in God. In fact, that is not the case. Using data from the 1963 NORC1 Catholic School Study, I calculated the completed fertility for Catholic married women in the sample.

For those born before 1910, the rate was 3.4 children; for those born between 1910 and 1920, the rate was 3.2 children; and for those born in the 1920s the rate was 3.8 children. Members of the middle group were for the most part in their childbearing years during the Great Depression and their lower rate may have been in substantial part due to a somewhat later age at marriage. Similarly the higher rate of the last group (the mothers of the baby boomers!) might well be the result of a somewhat earlier age of marriage.

Since unlimited fertility would have produced much larger families (six or more), one has to conclude that some form of birth control was used by Catholic women who were born even at the turn of the century.

Using a correction factor described by Samuel H. Preston, I was able to project family size for Catholic women back to 1870: 4.34 for women born in the 1870s, 4.88 for those born in the 1880s, and 4.01 for those born in the 1890s. The somewhat higher rate for those born in the 1880s may be the result of the huge turn-of-the-century immigration. Many of the women in those years were not born in the United States.

Thus Catholic family size diminished between 1870 and 1940, but only from 4.3 to 3.8. Large families were not typical even of women born in the last third of the last century. In Ireland, at any rate, family size was controlled by late age of marriage. It is impossible even to speculate about the means of family limitation practiced by these women. Health and nutrition as well as later age of marriage and absent husbands (who immigrated to America before their wives or who were migratory workers in this country) might account for their fertility being less than one might expect.

The big-family myth

But what about large Catholic families? Do not many American Catholics remember that their parents or grandparents came from large families? How is that memory compatible with the statistics that indicate families indeed larger than those of Protestants but still relatively small?

This phenomenon is the result of a mathematical paradox: Many more people come from large families than there were large families. Thus the descendants of large families are overrepresented in the population compared to the number of families in which they were raised. Consider a population of six families, two of which have 10 children, two of which have 6, and two of which have 3. That would mean 38 children, more than half of which (20) would come from only two families, one-third of total.

Thus it appears that, as we peer back into the early years of this century through the prism of the 1963 Catholic School Study, we discover women who were practicing one way or another some form of family limitation.

The church in effect gave women three choices - risk unlimited fertility; don't sleep with your husbands; stay away from the sacraments - a range of choices that might seem cruel.

But what about the "rhythm" method of family planning, as it was called in those days? One must remember that it was officially tolerated only by Pope Pius XII in 1951. In the middle 1930s it was often denounced by hard-liners. As my colleague, Ellen Skerrett, has pointed out to me, Dr. Leo Latz, a professor at Loyola Medical School, was denounced in an article in the Jesuit magazine America in February 1933 and "dropped" from the medical school because he wrote a book on rhythm. Nonetheless the book became a bestseller (60,000 copies sold in the first year). Some priests secretly passed it out in rectory parlors.

Which of the three choices did Catholic women follow until the middle 1960s? Evidently most of them did not follow the choice of having as many children "as God gives us." Doubtless some of them did, indeed, withdraw from sexual relations (on occasion perhaps with a sigh of relief). Others - I suspect most of them - practiced some form of "artificial" birth control and stayed away from the sacraments.

Some surely defied the church and practiced birth control but did not confess it. I have the impression (from my experience as a confessor in those days) that many combined the second and the third approach: They chose a form of birth control other than "rhythm," and confessed it when they went to confession at Christmas or Easter or first communion even though they knew they would shortly return to the forbidden method. Again, my impression is that few priests were willing to make an issue of such confessions. You gave them absolution and sent them away in God's peace.

The work of demographer Charles Westoff provides a snapshot of the behavior of Catholic women in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1955, 30 percent of Catholic women in their childbearing years were using some form of "artificial" birth control. In 1960 the rate had risen to 38 percent, and in 1965 to 53 percent For those who were regular churchgoers, the rates were not greatly different: 22 percent, 31 percent and 44 percent. In reinterviews in 1969 (the year after Humanae Vitae) the rate was 64 percent.

Pressures build up

I conclude from these data that pressures were building up inside the Catholic community against the birth control teaching before the Second Vatican Council and that even without the council, and without the papal commission established by Pope John (whose findings Pope Paul overruled), and possibly even without the pill (which substituted for rhythm among Catholic women in the early and middle 1960s, according to Westoff), changes in attitudes and behavior among both the lower clergy and the laity would have occurred in the middle and late 1960s, and that no encyclical, not even one that was not tardy, would have prevented the change.

Other data from the 1963 study help to show what Catholic women were thinking about birth control just as the council had begun and the "pill" was becoming available. I will use eight graphs to compare attitudes of the various birth cohorts of Catholic women at that time with the subsequent attitudes of the same cohorts 11 years later in the 1974 NORC Catholic School Study.

I note in passing that the data from the two studies is now an important historical resource for depicting Catholicism in the United States for those two decades. I remain surprised that no one asks for copies of the data set for research purposes.

Perhaps the data is tainted by the reactions from both Catholic left and right. The latter condemned the two studies for not supporting the pope and the former ridiculed the findings and continues to do so. Thus an official of the Lilly Foundation, speaking to a convocation of priests from the Chicago archdiocese last year observed, "I am not going to go quite so far as a famous novelist from this archdiocese who seems to blame this encyclical for everything from the hole in the ozone layer to the S&L crisis."

The first graph depicts the response of Catholic women to a question about whether birth control was wrong. The black line represents responses in 1963; the lighter, dashed line responses in 1974. The codes at the bottom of the graph present the birth cohort (the year in which a responder was born collapsed into decades).

In Fig. 1 we observe that not only do almost half of those born up to and including the 1930s believe that birth control is not wrong but that there is little change as one moves to the left across the cohort lines except for the upswing in rejection of official doctrine among those born in the 1940s. Thus more than two-fifths of those born at the turn of the century and who would be well beyond their childbearing years at the time of the study, rejected the official teaching.

Eleven years later, rejection was massive in all cohorts. Not only did many of the young change their minds, so too did many of those for whom childbearing was no longer an issue.

In the second chart, the dependent variable is a response to the question of whether the church has the right to dictate the kinds of family limitation Catholics may use. Clearly the rejection of this right was massive by 1974. But even in 1963, almost half of Catholic women born before the 1930s also rejected this right. Does this represent a change from previous acceptance? We have no way of knowing for sure, but answers of those women who were born before 1910 suggest that reservations about the right of the church in this area were not new in 1963.

Figs. 3 and 4 consider responses by the various cohorts at both points in time to two attitudinal questions that seemed to us at that time to reflect the ideology of some of the Catholic birth control teaching - sex was not supposed to be just for pleasure, and one could trust in God's support if one had as many children as possible.

Of those born since 1910 on, the majority of Catholic women rejected both ideological positions - and opposition increased among the younger cohorts. For the older women did this represent a change from what they might have thought during their childbearing years? Or were their responses in 1963 consistent with what they always believed?

In the second set of four graphs I turn to the attitudes on these issues of those "good" Catholics about whom the conservatives always want to hear - those who received communion every week. Even one-fifth of them did not agree with the church on birth control, including one-fifth of those born at the beginning of the century (Fig. 5). Some 30 percent (Fig. 6) - even of the oldest - did not think the church had the right to specify birth control methods.

Beginning with those born in 1920 (Fig. 7) the majority of frequent communicants accept the notion that pleasure alone is sufficient reason for sex and only a slight majority of those born after 1910 think they should have as many children as possible and trust in God (Fig. 8).

Losing support

Thus the church had lost the support of the majority of Catholic women in their attitudes toward birth control and the purpose of sex in 1963 - and arguably long before that - and was losing the support even of the most devout women, especially those born in the 1940s. As the broken lines on all eight charts demonstrate, the game was completely lost (to use the words I had spoken in the seminary in 1953) in all birth cohorts 11 years later.

Two facts stand out in all eight graphic portraits of American Catholic women during the 1960s and early 1970s. The first is how great was the change at all age levels in 11 short years. The second, and perhaps more striking because less appreciated even today, is how great was pressure for change in 1963. The balance was already tipping against the official position even then, even among women beyond their childbearing years.

The gap between the two lines in my eight graphs - the increase in rejection during the 11-year period - is in substantial part, I speculate, the result of the already high levels of rejection that existed in 1963. The trend toward rejection might have increased anyway, though perhaps more slowly, even if none of the astonishing events of those 11 years had not occurred. The pill alone is the only outside mechanism one needs to account for the speed of the change. Ironically the encyclical came too late. But even if it had not been so tardy, I doubt that the situation in 1974 would have been much different.

In summary, the church began a serious campaign to talk large numbers of the faithful out of birth control only in this century because only in this century was it perceived as a problem). The campaign to trouble the consciences of the laity became official in the 1930s and was over for all practical purposes at the parish level 40 years later.

Let no one write this off as (in the words of the pope's press officer) something that happened only in "an irresponsibly permissive society, hyperinflated with sexuality," because it has happened, perhaps within a somewhat different time frame, in every European and North Atlantic country, including Ireland and Poland.

This summary however does not take into account the enormous human suffering the campaign imposed on the laity, especially on laywomen. The choice imposed on them of no sex or no sacraments or no limitation on family size was a harsh one - and still is, even if it is not taken seriously by most Catholics For many, many Catholic women, it would seem, the result was long years of troubled sex, anxious calendar watching, and infrequent reception of the sacraments.

I am astonished that so few left the church and virtually all returned to the sacraments when their childbearing years were over. The Catholic heritage must have been extremely important to them. Apparently they loved the church greatly despite what it had done to them.

Nonetheless, church leaders have a lot to answer for, and their responsibility is all the more serious because so much of what they did and said was both arrogant and ignorant and done and said by men who had no personal involvement in the experiences about which they were making judgments.

In their defense it may well be argued that they were caught in two demographic processes that no one understood at the time - the demographic transitions (declining infant mortality rates) and urbanization (children becoming an economic cost instead of an economic asset). Yet even today one finds few church leaders who understand the importance of these changes.

I do not propose to argue in this context the ethical issue of the birth control prohibition. That is more properly left to the ethicists. I will be content with saying that church leaders seem to have missed some matters that might have made them less harsh and might have prevented a situation in which on the important issue of human sexuality they have lost all credibility.

Surely it is clear from the human sciences (of one of which I am a practitioner and hence may speak with authority) that it is natural for husband and wife to make love. Indeed what is uniquely human about human sexuality - in comparison with that of the other higher primates - is not its reproductive capabilities (the other higher primates reproduce without nearly as much fuss and bother as humans require) but its bonding capabilities. Uniquely and specifically human sexuality is designed to bond the male and the female together so they can raise their offspring to adulthood.

One might even contend that, given the friction and conflict inherent in the close common life of a man and woman, the more and better the sex, the stronger will be the bonds that hold them together, all other things being equal. Under such circumstances, from the point of view of the human sciences, it would seem to be unnatural (in the sense of weakening the natural bond between them) for them not to make love for long periods of time.

Ties that bond

Most married people will insist, if they are given half a chance, that sexual love is essential to hold a marriage together and that in its absence the ties between husband and wife tend to loosen and fray. If Catholic women in the four decades before 1963 continued to make love with their husbands despite the fact that such love seemed to bar them from the sacraments, the reason - as they would tell you if given half a chance - was that sex was necessary for the marriage to continue.

But the problem is that they were not permitted - and are not permitted now - that half a chance to speak of their experience of the bonding power of sexual love in marriage. Not bliss, Michael Novak, but bond.

If excluding reproduction completely is in violation of the natural law, excluding the healing and restorative powers of marital sex for a long period also would seem to be unnatural - and so might be glancing nervously at the calendar when reconciliation and renewal desperately need to be underwritten by passionate pleasure. Church leaders have all too easily dismissed this insistent and valid demand of nature.

The laity could have told church leaders that, but no one asked them. The lower clergy could have told them the same thing, but no one asked them, nor is asking them now.

The church has protected the procreative dimensions of married love. One must ask whether it has not underestimated the equally "natural" bonding dimension. Can it not find a way to do both simultaneously?

One strives in vain to hear conversation on that subject. Nothing in the triumphalism of the Humanae Vitae celebration hinted at the possibility of such dialogue, and nothing in the articles of Hebblethwaite or Novak suggested it. To say the choice of no sex, no sacraments or no limitation seems harsh and unnatural will offend those like Novak who think the church must teach people to say no. Some might feel there is a possible middle ground between saying yes to promiscuity and yes to the binding power of marital love.

But then, Michael Novak was pontificating about the most candid details of marital intimacy in the pages of Commonweal within a year of his own marriage, and thus must be counted as an expert when he now pontificates in Crisis about the absence of bliss among the "progressive" couples he used to know.

Fr. Andrew M. Greeley is a sociologist with the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago.
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Title Annotation:papal encyclical, 'Veritatis Splendor'
Author:Greeley, Andrew M.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 15, 1993
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