In the News 2011

Good Catholics Can Use Contraception


The organization Catholics for Choice represents the voice of many in the US, Europe, Latin America and elsewhere who disagree with the Catholic church’s official position on issues of sexuality. They present an alternative view to official church teachings forbidding condoms and other contraception and, especially, abortion.

Do Catholicism and “choice” belong together?

It could be argued that Catholics long ago stopped blindly following the church’s directives. This is evident almost anywhere—Poland, Portugal, the Philippines or Pittsburgh—where many Catholics do use contraception and take their own stance on the abortion issue. Those that portray Catholicism and appropriate decisions related to reproductive health as not going hand in hand misrepresent the reality of how the majority of Catholics now live.

There are some Catholics, perhaps even a majority, who do following their conscience.

The carefully crafted messages handed down from church leaders to the faithful present only one interpretation of Catholic tradition. The story the Vatican has chosen to tell is a story in which Catholics oppose abortion. The story heard from Catholics around the world, however, would often be very different. While asking Catholics what they think about reproductive issues is important simply as an exercise in pluralism, it also has a sound basis in church doctrine. The Catechism charges all Catholics to follow their conscience, even if that sometimes conflicts with church teachings.

In the 1960s, Pope John XXIII made a move in the right direction by establishing a special commission to determine whether the church teachings about contraception could be changed. When he died soon afterwards his successor, Pope Paul VI, continued the commission. Married couples were appointed and together with clergy the commission voted overwhelmingly to rescind the church’s ban on contraception. Unfortunately, Pope Paul VI lacked confidence in ordinary Catholics and decided not to follow this report.

The result of this church decision is that women in developing nations often have no access to contraception and sometimes die as a result. Even in other countries, access to contraception is limited by a variety of factors—economic, ideological and political—that only serve to increase the numbers of abortions.

Can the church and its members practice their faith differently?

If you follow your conscience, you can be a good Catholic and still use contraception. Church teachings do not actually require theologians around the world to agree with each other. Following the international news about Catholics tends to support the idea that dogma isn’t healthy—“Where there is room for doubt, there is freedom.” Legislation and political leadership in each country, therefore, should not kneel before the requirements of the Vatican, as some of its attitudes toward sex, abortion and contraception are irresponsible and dangerous.

How do you feel about the resolution on conscientious objection in health care made by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly at the end of last year?

This was an important warning sign for all who care about health care and freedom—the freedom of women, the freedom to make reproductive choices and the freedom of religion. Apparently, not enough politicians in support of women’s rights understood the importance of this vote. In reality, I believe the majority of the Parliamentary Assembly—and a majority of Europeans in general—are strong supporters of women’s rights, women’s health and freedom of religion. The idea of a secular country is not that the country is against religion, but that it accepts every religion. There is, therefore, no room for theocracy. During the debate there was much manipulation and misinformation regarding the content of the original proposed resolution, especially on the part of the extremely conservative Italian and Irish Members of the European Parliament, This small cohort managed to destroy a resolution that would have been particularly important for clarifying that the right of conscientious objection in health care is, in practice, a tool wielded by opponents of women’s rights, abortion and contraception. By focusing on providers’ rights they manipulate the rights of patients.

But weren’t the contents of the resolution voted on in accordance with the opinion of the minority?

I am not excessively worried about the resolution because a majority of the deputies did not vote for it. Therefore, it is not a strong and meaningful resolution; it will not have a big impact in the long run and will not cause major damage. But it is still sobering for those who understand the real reasons for the existence of conscientious objection. It is clear is that the greater the worldwide reach of democracy, the greater the influence of civil society, and the more respect for the rights of women and the role of reproductive health. It is clear that in what were once the most Catholic countries, life is not always controlled by the members of Opus Dei and the high clergy. An increasing number of politicians who are Catholics go to Mass and baptize their children, but they understand that they working for the people and not for the church. Clearly, the Catholic hierarchy is losing global influence. Because they feel their power base eroding, they are increasingly resorting to various tricks, moves that I would like to stop in the name of change. One of these tricks is the promotion of conscientious objection for health care providers.

Isn’t the right to conscientious objection a human right?

I support the right of doctors and other medical staff to follow their own conscience, a view that is also supported by an organization which I head. This is one of the basic guidelines of our organization. I can imagine a situation in which a health professional— for ethical or moral reasons—refuses to perform certain medical services for a hospital. In such a case, this individual should not be forced to carry out any intervention—for two reasons. First, because I think that people should not be forced into something they do not want to do, and second, because I believe that patients should not accept services from someone that has been forced into performing them. If you want contraception or abortion, surely you would want to receive this service from a person who was willing to help you; it’s the only way to obtain quality care. This is all, of course, provided that the first hospital with the objecting health professional then sent the patient to a nearby facility where she was able to receive the services they had been denied.

Is the problem is that the rules of the game are not sufficiently well-defined?

The biggest problem with conscience, the area in which the Catholic hierarchy is causing the most confusion, is the mistaken notion that it refers to an institution’s conscience. In other words, a patient who ends up at a Catholic care center may find conscientious objection enforced hospital-wide and thus is completely denied some services without even the right to be referred to other doctors. This idea is absurd. The institution’s supposed conscience trumps that of the women who come to the hospital for a service, as well as conscience of all health workers in this institution, who may wish to implement these interventions. Therefore, this view of corporate conscience is the negation of freedom of individual conscience.

Another important point: I don’t know of many Catholic hospitals that would turn down taxpayers’ money, money that comes from secular society. And if taxpayers give money for health care, it is should be disbursed without discrimination. So if Catholic hospitals want to selectively deny services, this discriminatory and unfair system should be paid for out of church funds, which have more than enough money.

Does it seem as though the conscientious objection in health care trend is a desperate move by the hierarchy?

After the Catholic hierarchy and influential conservative groups failed to persuade individual Catholics not to use contraception and abortion, they tried to convince politicians that the law would prevent the company trying to impose their views on a conscientious objector.

You don’t have a lot of nice things to say about the Vatican.

I am Catholic. The reason for this is that I truly believe in social justice. And on some issues, such as social justice and poverty, the Catholic Church has been an important voice. Then there are some members of the hierarchy who, last year, really stood up for their people. Consider Bishop Romero in Latin America, or Bishop Kevin Dowling, who works in South African shantytowns and has repeatedly said that the Catholic Church should allow the use of condoms. These great men have also been among the reason that I remain Catholic. I love the church, but I want it to change and improve.

This article originally appeared in Mladina.

Catholics for Choice