The recent clash over contraception between the Obama administration and Catholic Church officials brought the issue of religion and birth control — a contention among Catholics since the 1960s — to the forefront of U.S. politics. Many Catholic clergy intend to continue the political battle in their parishes. But rather than focus on birth control, which is a divisive issue within the church itself, Catholic leaders should educate parishioners on candidates’ politics of helping the poor and vulnerable, which is the real core of the Church’s existence.
There is ample space in the Church doctrine for integrating scientific studies into religious teaching. Since the times of Galileo the Catholic Church has had an unwritten agreement that scientists, and science, were not subject to Church revisions or contempt as long as the scientists themselves did not make forays into religion. Saint Thomas Aquinas instituted the idea is that Scripture is inviolable, but human interpretation of the religious text, and thus religious teaching, is subject to revision and can change.
The Catholic Church’s historic opposition to the birth control pill is based more on politics than religion. In the 1960s, Irish Catholic doctor John Rock, co-developer of the birth control pill, attempted to confront the religious aspects of his scientific invention head-on, and lost. Two Catholic commissions comprised of clergy and lay people voted overwhelmingly that religious teaching on family planning was not correct, and the ban of artificial contraception should be lifted, but the Pope chose not to revise the religious teaching to accommodate for science or the will of its followers.
Nonetheless, the commissions did clarify why birth control pills were banned, while natural family planning methods were not. The reasoning behind accepting natural; versus artificial methods was intent beforehand to ensure that sex does not result in pregnancy. Unlike natural family planning, a couple that uses birth control (such as the pill) goes against the Vatican because they “…have taken action to convert a potentially fertile act into an infertile act” prior to their engaging in sex.
Whether using birth control violates Catholic religious teachings is dependent on the person’s intent for taking the pill, which the Church cannot know or foresee. The Church could very easily accept a woman using birth control pill for non-contraceptive merits, such as preventing ovarian cancer. In fact, when research found that women that remain abstinent, such as nuns, would benefit from taking birth control pills to prevent ovarian cancer, the Catholic Church remained largely silent on the issue.
Religious freedom hinges on individuals being able to make decisions according to their conscience. The bishops' decry of contraception, however, does not represent a large majority of Catholics’ beliefs for health care access. In 2009, 63% of Catholic voters supported providing contraceptives as part of health insurance, and 83% have used birth control banned by the Vatican.
Rather than focusing on a largely unpopular religious teaching to defend religious rights, the Catholic Church should focus on urging politicians to promote pro-poor policies. The bishops’ letter to extend unemployment insurance to needy families is an exemplar of this. These issues, such as education and protecting the vulnerable in times of unemployment and strife, are the backbone of the Church consensus and would further Christian values much more than banning contraception.
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