Many Catholics say choice of using contraception should be private despite church’s edict
A week ago, Maureen Mollineaux stood in front of St. Juliana Catholic Church in West Palm Beach and calmly told a reporter that she used contraceptives during her child bearing years and that she considers herself a practicing Catholic.
According to the U.S. Conference of Bishops, Mollineaux is in direct defiance of the Catholic Church’s position against contraceptives.
The longtime St. Juliana parishioner is far from standing alone on this issue. Proponents of contraceptives claim as many as 98 percent of sexually experienced Catholic women have used some form of contraception during their reproductive years.
The same report, however, goes on to say that only 68 percent of Catholic women used “highly effective methods” of contraception, such as sterilization, the birth control pill or intrauterine devices.
Even if either of those numbers is exaggerated, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops insists they are, it means that there may be as many women in the pews on any given Sunday who use contraceptives as those who don’t.
And not talking about it, to their friends or to their priests.
“It’s not something that’s talked about,” said Mollineaux, of Lake Worth. “It’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”
The Conference of Catholic Bishops has been in the news for the past two weeks, voicing its objections to President Obama’s mandate this month that free birth control be included in health plans provided to employees of schools, charities and hospitals connected to religiously affiliated institutions. It excludes churches.
That mandate, the bishops contend, forces Catholic hospitals, universities and institutions to provide contraceptives to their employees against the dictates of their Catholic conscience.
Facing increasing pressure, the administration announced a compromise in which the insurer – rather than the employer – would be required to provide contraceptive coverage free of charge.
Insurance agent Tim Sheehan, who attends St. Clare Catholic Church in North Palm Beach, has often thought about how some of the health insurance plans he sells include birth control.
“I can say to myself that I’m not forcing anybody to use it, and I do see how (insurance plans) I’ve sold have made a huge positive difference in people’s lives.”
Sheehan is also a member of the Palm Beach Diocese’s health board. Employing about 1,100 people, half or more of them women, the diocese would be one of the Catholic institutions that would have to follow the birth-control coverage mandate.
As Sheehan sees it, diocesan employees who want to prevent pregnancy should either pay for it themselves or practice the church’s recommended natural family planning methods.
“But that involves practicing abstinence a couple days out of the month, and people don’t like to talk about that,” Sheehan said.
“It still comes down to the fact that we don’t want to be forced to pay for it, and the mandate says, ‘Pay for it anyway.’ The mandate is not right.”
Mollineaux, 60, said her Catholic conscience is clear. She has raised three good Catholic children; she has worked hard for her church.
“In the last week, people have flagged down my car and said, ‘Good job,’ ” she said, on her comments she used contraceptives.
Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said a large number of Catholic women and their men made up their minds long ago on the subject of contraception despite the bishops’ directives.
“You’re required to follow your conscience, even if it’s in conflict with the church,” said O’Brien, who also considers himself a good Catholic.
In January, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged its bishops to speak out against the contraception mandate.
“I ask you to please visit the website of the USCCB set up for this issue to learn more about this critical situation and how to contact Congress in support of legislation that would reverse the administration’s decision,” wrote Palm Beach Bishop Gerald Barbarito on Jan. 31. “As men and women of faith, we must not hesitate to stand up and protect the rights given to us by God which are protected by our Constitution.”
“When they read the bishops’ letter in my church, I just looked down at my shoes and totally ignored it,” said O’Brien, who attends a church in Washington, where his organization is based. “Nobody listens to the Vatican on (contraception).”
For a very short period in its history, the Catholic Church considered approving contraceptives.
One of the developers of the birth control pill, Dr. John Rock, was a practicing Catholic who considered his invention a natural method of birth control, working with a woman’s menstrual cycle, that the church could in conscience approve.
Pope Pius XII in 1958 approved the use of the pill, but only to remedy painful menstrual periods or conditions that made conception difficult.
In 1964 Pope Paul VI established a committee to investigate approving the pill, and it soon became clear that the majority of the committee favored approving the pill.
But in 1968 Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, condemning all artificial methods including the pill.
The present pope, Benedict XVI, has said the use of condoms can be justified in some cases, but the church’s overall position on contraception remains unchanged since Paul VI’s pronouncement.
“There is nothing sinful about looking after the health of the woman you love,” O’Brien said.
Like Mollineaux, Gladys Van Otteren, 52, has attended St. Juliana for years. The two women have known each other since their children were small. Van Otteren has six children; Mollineaux has three .
“She’s a lovely woman,” Van Otteren said. “But we’ve never discussed intimacies. I would talk about that with my sister, but I don’t know if my best friend knows that I use natural family planning. It’s her life, it’s her soul and it’s her conscience. I’m not the conscience police. A lot of things people do, it’s between them and God. I’m not going to push my views on other people. My job is to be the best Catholic I can be.”
Van Otteren’s daughter-in-law told her that she does not plan to have six children. “And that is none of my business either,” Van Otteren said.
The contraception mandate, however, looks like government interference to Van Otteren.
“It’s not my place to tell somebody how to run their own soul, but I don’t want to pay for somebody else’s decision. Find your own birth control. And I don’t want to pay for Viagra either.”
Mollineaux is at peace with her decisions, but she has a word of advice for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“I have moved on,” Mollineaux said. “But the bishops need to start listening to everybody’s problems. Times are tough out there, and they don’t know what it’s like to write a mortgage payment.”
This article was originally published in the Palm Beach Post.