The pope has renounced the papal throne. Long live the new progressive pope! Such are the rallying cries from establishment voices wanting to see the Catholic Church cease being Catholic now that Pope Benedict XVI will be pope no longer. That this chorus would have the Vatican dancing to the beat of a Lady Gaga song is no surprise. The fascinating rejoinder is: You know that Church that has been cast in conventional narratives as an oppressor of women and backward in the ways of the world, most particularly when it comes to sex? You know what Catholic women want from it? To hear more about what the Church actually proposes!
Mary Hasson of the Ethics and Public Policy Center has been doing some unique work looking into what Catholic women know about their church and what they want from it. Some of the findings in her recent What Catholic Women Think about Faith, Conscience, and Contraception are quite an indictment of the depths of surrender to the popular culture on the part of way too many in the Church. Which also should be no surprise: We’re decades into a catechetical abandonment and dissent by too many of our Catholic campuses and other institutions. However, some of Hasson’s findings are quite encouraging about the hunger for real Catholicism.
It is both scandalous and not entirely surprising that she found that only 13 percent of Catholic women who attend Mass at least some of the time during the course of a year accept Church teaching on contraception. It is not shocking given that the average Catholic Massgoer is not exactly being taught the theology or even the practicality of the Catholic teaching on sexual morality. And even Catholics all too often see Church teaching as a litany of NO!s when, in fact, it is all about yes. Yes to human dignity and happiness. Yes to the respect for one another that comes from truly believing you are made in the image and likeness of God.
“On the one hand, the number is small, no question,” Hasson acknowledges. “That 13 percent includes not only weekly churchgoers but also women who attend less regularly, perhaps a few times a year. However, if we look only at women who attend Mass weekly, the percentage accepting the Church’s teaching on contraception goes up, doubling (to 27 percent) among young women ages 18–34. That’s a sign of hope. In spite of decades of dissenting theologians, silence from the parish pulpit, and distorted cultural messages about sex, these women have heard the Church’s teaching — and embraced it. These women form a solid core of faithful Catholics who can attest to the personal benefits of following the Church’s teaching on sexuality and family planning.”
And despite the current conversation about women and contraception and religious liberty some of us are having — and the Catholic bishops in an unprecedented way — the media coverage has been such that most Americans still don’t quite know what we’re talking about, and why there are lawsuits against the Obama administration’s abortion-drug, contraception, and sterilization mandate, if they even know there are lawsuits. And some Catholic women have a similar relationship to Church teaching on contraception. In Hasson’s finding, 37 percent. “The 37 percent seems to confirm the stories that abound of Catholic women who went to Mass every week for years, and to confession regularly, but never heard that contraception is wrong. Similarly, how many Catholics have gone through RCIA [the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults], marriage prep, or marriage enrichment and either never heard word one about the Church’s teaching on sexuality or family planning, or perhaps heard some general teachings, and then, with a wink, were told to follow their consciences, with no further guidance about forming their consciences? Sacramental frequency does matter, though. Women who don’t fully accept the Church’s teaching but attend Mass weekly (53 percent) are more likely than infrequent churchgoers to be receptive to learning more about the Church’s teaching.”
And that’s a problem for those campaigning for the sexual liberation of the Catholic Church — e.g., for Sister Mary Cosmo in the Vatican to lead a revolution of capitulation.
A cover story in the glossy New York magazine not so long ago dared to question the good of the contraception pill, because of the damage it has done to women’s lives, including biologically. The one major institution on the scene that proposes a radically different way might just have something to offer the world. If it only taught it and lived it.
Perhaps if the Holy Spirit has anything to say about it — and if the thirst is quenched both within the Church and throughout the culture for a healing and truth about our very natures, about a human ecology that makes sense and helps make life make sense, infused with purpose and hope, redemption and even joy — expect the next pope to carry on where this one leaves off. Pope Benedict has been a teacher, first and foremost, reintroducing a transformative proposal that Christ himself offered. And it so happens that men and women, wanting to be good, living lives in service in love of God, men and women whose lives are well ordered — are good to have around. Enough with the campaign for less Catholicism in the Catholic Church. How about an ecumenical welcome mat for the good and faithful shepherd who with confidence and humility speaks with clarity about the teachings of the Catholic Church, “proposing the good news of Jesus Christ to a disenchanted world,” as George Weigel puts it in his new book Evangelical Catholicism? The disenchanted can even be found in the pews. And they want to be fed. They want to be engaged. They want to be transformed. They don’t want more of the same misery omnipresent in the secular world. The world doesn’t need a Gospel of misery; it needs a Gospel of hope. The Church has it, and we should expect the next pope to teach on, infused with a generous and contagious spirit of engagement.