The Revolution in Birth Control Practices of U.S. Roman Catholics

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Science  05 Jan 1973:
Vol. 179, Issue 4068, pp. 41-44
DOI: 10.1126/science.179.4068.41


There has been a wide and increasing defection of Roman Catholic women from the traditional teaching of their Church on the subject of birth control over the past two decades and a resulting convergence of Catholic and non-Catholic contraceptive practices. By 1970, two-thirds of all Catholic women were using methods disapproved by their Church; this figure reached three-quarters for women under age 30. Considering the fact that most of the one-quarter of young Catholic women conforming to Church teaching had never used any method, the percentage of those deviating may well reach 90 as these women grow older and the problems of fertility control become more important.

Much of this increasing deviation has been among the more educated Catholics, who were formerly the most faithful adherents to Church teaching. The change between 1965 and 1970 was especially striking for Catholic women who had attended college.

Perhaps the most significant finding is that the defection has been most pronounced among the women who receive Communion at least once a month. Even among this group, the majority now deviates from Church teaching on birth control; among the younger women in this group, the proportion not conforming reaches two-thirds.

It seems abundantly clear that U.S. Catholics have rejected the 1968 papal encyclical's statement on birth control and that there exists a wide gulf between the behavior of most Catholic women, on the one hand, and the position of the more conservative clergy and the official stand of the Church itself, on the other. That many Catholics can continue in their other religious practices and simultaneously deviate on the issue of birth control is an interesting commentary on the process of social change.

Ultimately this crisis of authority will probably be resolved by a change in official teaching, since it seems doubtful that such a major discrepancy can continue indefinitely without other repercussions. At a minimum, the cost to the Roman Catholic Church will be a loss of authority in a major area of life: that of sex and reproduction.

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