Statistics, Praxis, and Teaching on Birth Control

In April’s edition of First Things, Mary Eberstadt presents a compelling case for the continuing relevance of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, despite its continual disparagement from both outside the Church and inside (particularly in the last few years). She notes toward the end that the Episcopal Church in the United States, which basically embraced the contraceptive mentality tout court in the 20th century, has faced a disastrous decline within the last several decades. That’s true enough. However, that the Catholic Church in the United States has faced a similar decline, as a cursory review of the Georgetown’s CARA website will indicate.

For instance, Catholic weddings have declined by almost 60% between 1980 and 2017. Sure, that is better than the Episcopal Church which, as Eberstadt indicates, married less than a quarter in 2015 that it married in 1980. But it isn’t that much better. Surely there are no hierarchs popping champagne corks over that particular statistic.

Less disheartening are the Baptismal records, which show that the decrease of Catholic baptisms in the United States is only about 25% since 1985. Yet anecdotally, this can be partly attributed – at least in the Northeast part of the United States – to immigrant groups, a community the Episcopal Church cannot draw from to the same degree.

My point is this: despite the official Catholic position on birth control remaining faithful to the tradition as re-asserted by Pope Paul VI, the reality is that, at least in the United States, the Catholic Church has faced significant contraction. Again, not to the degree of those communities which embraced contraception wholeheartedly, but nevertheless in a significant way. I think there is something to the suggestion that had the Catholic Church wavered in an official way on the birth control question, she would be looking at the same degree of decline as the Episcopalians. Yet the decline that is present shows that remaining consistent in the catechism is not enough if vast numbers of the faithful are ignoring the teaching in practice. It also shows the depths of the cultural desolation which have taken place over the last fifty years.

The recent social upheavals have taken an unimaginable toll on human welfare which it will take generations to resolve. Because of this, I am grateful that the magisterium of the Church has stayed true to natural law; we must never waver from it, despite what some in Rome whisper. But at the same time, we must not gloat over the decline of others, not only because it is bad for ecumenism, but also because the disparity between teaching and praxis is still embarrassingly high among self-described Catholics. The answer, of course, is not to change the teaching (which is impossible), but to gently propose an alternative way of life to a generation of people who assume – often uncritically – that the sexual ethos of the 1960s is the only possibility for 2018. It isn’t.