It’s a myth that Catholic support for contraception is restricted to the wealth countries of North America and Western Europe. A global survey of self-identified Catholics in twelve countries (those with the largest Catholic populations) has found that overall, 78% of Catholics worldwide support the use of contraception. Even in Africa, Catholics are divided, without a clear majority backing the official Catholic prohibition.
Do you support or oppose the use of contraceptives? In this diagram, “100%” represents the extent of agreement with the Vatican position, and so the points closest to the centre are those most strongly disagreeing with the Humanae Vitae prohibition on artificial contraception. It’s clear that none of the countries included show any strong support for the Vatican position, and most are firmly against.
This will have profound importance for the bishops’ deliberations at the Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and the Family.One of the key questions in the global survey preparing for the synod, is “Do Catholics accept the teaching on contraception?”. The answer, quite clearly, is a resounding “no” – overall, 78% do not support the official teaching. This matters, a lot.
For the detailed figures see the interactive version of this diagram at the Univision site, which show that only in Congo is there an absolute majority opposed to contraception, and that by a margin of only 54% to 44%. In Uganda, there is a plurality (but not a majority) opposed, by 49% to 44%. Poland and the Philippines are widely regarded as conservative Catholic countries, but in the Philippines, where the bishops waged a strenous campaign against government plans to extend contraception services to the poor, only 30% of Catholics are opposed to contraception. in Poland, only 19% (less than one in five) agree with the Vatican opposition. At the other end of the scale, in each of Brazil, Argentina, Spain and France, support for contraception is over 90%. In the headline for its report on this survey, the Washington Post referred to a “divided church”. On contraception at least, that’s not a fair reflection of the situation. It’s not the church as a whole that is divided: 78% is a very substantial majority in favour of contraception. The real division, is between the Vatican and the rest of the Church.
Catholic doctrine is not developed in simple reaction to opinion polls, and this finding does not lead immediately to the conclusion that doctrine must change. However, the Church does accept that there is an obligation at least to consider the findings from scientific research, including social survey results. These results show that self – identified lay Catholics reject the teaching. Add to that, the historical fact that the encyclical simply ignored the majority opinion of the papal commission that preceded it, and that in the years since, there has been abundant evidence of serious disagreements among the professional moral theologians on the wisdom of the absolute prohibition on artificial contraception, and the inescapable conclusion must be, that there is not evidence whatsoever that this prohibition has the support of the church “as a whole”. By the principle of the sensus fideii, this manifest failure of Humanae Vitae to gain the acceptance of the faithful, that is, to be “fully received” by the Church raises the fundamental question, whether it even has full validity as doctrine.
If Humanae Vitae comes into question, then so does its central foundation, that every sexual act must be open to procreation. When that is challenged – so is the rest of the flimsy house of cards that constitutes the Vatican (mis)understaning of human sexuality. The entire structure needs to be rebuilt, from the ground up.
There is general agreement that the synod has not been called to make doctrinal changes, and no reason to suppose that it will do so. However, they will be forced to consider the evidence before them, and much of this will make uncomfortable reading for the doctrinal ideologues on sexuality. Most Catholics know that sexual doctrines must change eventually, and I suspect many bishops know this. The challenge they face, is finding a way to admit the obvious, without losing too much face. Open and frank discussions at the synod could conceivably give them just the fig leaf they need, to begin to admit the obvious.